With A National Pool, Why Trials For Boxing?

THERE wasn’t much hope that one of Sri Lanka’s two men’s boxers might bring home an Asian Games medal from Incheon; so the duo’s failure was no cause for disappointment – more so as other athletes in the country’s 80-strong contingent hadn’t fared any better, except of course, the cricketers who won gold.

Only some two months before, in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, four boxers in a team of seven were eliminated in their respective first fights; the three survivors on the opening night went out in the next round. Historically, the quality of Asian Games boxing has been superior and tougher to that of the Commonwealth Games. And on the evidence of our failure in Glasgow, a medal in Incheon had to be pure wishful thinking. And so it was.

Both our Asian Games boxers were comprehensively beaten by their respective opponents, who won unanimously, with all three judges scoring in their favour. Mohamed Dilshan, the light welter Air Force boxer, was outpointed by Aal Ezirej of Iraq, who in turn was defeated in his next fight. P D Suresh, the fly weight from Slimline BC, was out-boxed by Shota Hayashida, the 2012 National champion of Japan, who went on to win bronze.

Suresh might’ve been a tad unfortunate to face the eventual bronze medallist on the opening night; so, some might wistfully argue that had Suresh somehow overcome the Japanese, the bronze would’ve been his. But, as the judges scoring cards show, Suresh was always behind the Japanese, losing all three rounds: 27/30, 27/30, 27/30. Dilshan, on the other hand, won the third round of his bout, 30/26, but his Iraqi opponent never looked like journeying all the way to the medals rostrum; sure enough, he was eliminated the night after he overcame the Sri Lankan. Conclusion: the Sri Lankans barely got close to winning a medal.

More than the dismay caused by the early exit of our two men’s boxers in Incheon, what is alarming is the habitual elimination of our boxers in the first round of major international competitions. Prior to the Games in Glasgow and Incheon, Sri Lanka, in 2013, dispatched a four-man team to the World Championships in Kazakhstan and three to the Asian Championships in Jordan – and in both meets all of our boxers fell at the first hurdle.

The story in 2011 and 2012 was no different: the three-man team to the 2011 Asian Championships in South Korea and a three-man team to the 2011 World Championships in Azerbaijan were all banished from the competition in the first round of the preliminaries. The two boxers at the Asian Olympic qualifier in Kazakhstan too couldn’t do any better than performing one-night stands.

An audit of our performance in major international competition since 2011 reveals an appalling discrepancy. Of a total of 24 fights in which our men’s boxers had figured over the past four years, we’ve managed to win just four first-round fights and lost 20, all in the first round of competition; lest that piece of statistic is misunderstood, I repeat: four wins and 20 defeats, all in the first round of the preliminaries. So, the third round and beyond has remained forbidden territory as far as our boxers were concerned.

Of course, our record in internationals of lesser importance is better (e.g. we won three gold medals in the 11-nation Lion Cup in Colombo), but the quality of the opposition in these secondary meets is nowhere near of that found in any Games or World/Asian Championships. A ratio of 4 wins in 24 fights just doesn’t read right for a sport that has made huge investments on its players. Boxing, perhaps, is the only sport, besides cricket, that has a foreign professional coach working fulltime; has a national squad in training year round; has at least six international competitions each year and not infrequent stints of overseas coaching prior to major competitions; for instance, the team, approaching the Glasgow Games, spent the two weeks in training at a professional club in Nottingham.

2010, however, had been a good year, relatively; Wanniarachchi won silver at the Commonwealth Championships, after which he won the Commonwealth Games gold that was confiscated following a failed drug-test. The boxer’s appeal to an independent court in Geneva seeking to reclaim his medal … well, I don’t have to tell the fate of his appeal, do I? You don’t want to hear again that threadbare story about the boxer’s Geneva appeal “impeding’’ Hambantota’s bid to host the 2018 CG – and the inevitable consequent.

It isn’t a coincidence that post-2010 our fortunes dwindled. It was the year that the Sport Ministry legislated trials as compulsory before selections of national teams for international competitions, which meant that the main selection criteria would be performances at the trials. The rule was introduced to counter frequent complaints of unfair selections. These allegations are to be expected, given that opinions on selections are seldom undivided. That is, selections are a subjective thing and hence, agreeability on the selectors preferred choices is rarely universal.

If the Sport Ministry officials are capable of making decisions on whether a selection is fair or otherwise is arguable, but the blanket ruling that performance at trials will be the sole basis for national selections hurts more than helps the sport. The rule, of course, might help eliminate dubious selections, but then behind most controversial selections anyway is the interfering hand of politics rather than partiality shown by selectors.

The Sport Ministry 2010 decree, it has to be pointed out, questions the relevance of having a functioning national pool. The ABA has a national squad in training year round under a professional Cuban coach. What the 2010 rule has done is disrupt the training of Sri Lanka’s top boxers. About a month prior to the trials, National pool boxers are compelled to join their respective club practices for two reasons: 1/ they represent their clubs at the trials, and so must be a part of their clubs’ training program, and 2/ as their chief rivals too are members of national pool, they naturally wish not to expose their strengths and vulnerabilities to rivals.

Given that Sri Lanka’s boxers participate in at least six international competitions, the national pool, in effect, functions for only six months – in the other six months, trials and local meets require the pool members to train at their respective clubs, under another coach.

“No two coaches’ method of preparing boxers is the same. It is very likely that the lessons learnt from one coach might well be undone by another,’’ said a former ABA official, as well as one-time National champion and Police coach.
“It is not possible to gauge the impact on a boxer training under two coaches at the same time, but that it causes confusion in the boxer’s mind is pretty much certain. That can leave boxers’ technique too in a confused state – a recipe for disaster at international tournaments.’’

The above is a plausible explanation why, post 2010, twenty times in twenty-four international bouts our boxers have never gone beyond the first round, whilst the four first round survivors went out in the second round. Prior to 2010, if the pool had more than one prospective candidate for the same weight class, the ABA would conduct special trials to settle the issue.

Otherwise, the national representatives were chosen directly from the national pool. A place in the national pool, however, isn’t easy to secure nor is the retention of pool membership until retirement age.

The national pool boxers have to prove their worthiness in the many local competitions – an examination that separates the worthy from the unworthy; the exits and entrances to the pool. In a word, the national pool at all times includes the country’s best boxers, and so is the logical place to look for those suitable for international competition.

So, whilst the 2010 Sport Ministry decree might solve headaches arising from controversial selections, it no doubt is at cross-purpose with a national pool, as the aforesaid facts figures show.It’s a clear case of the solution causing a graver problem than the problem it set out to resolve. And boxing and boxers, meanwhile, play guinea pig.

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