- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

If you think the pride of the United States is at stake in men’s basketball at the Athens Games, consider the plight of boxing — a sport once dominated by Americans.

Although the United States leads all nations with 44 boxing gold medals since 1904, it has won just two in the past three Summer Games and was shut out for the first time since 1948 in Sydney four years ago.

The Games often have been a showcase for the next generation of American boxing stars. Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won a gold medal in 1960 at Rome and became heavyweight champion of the world by 1964.

Joe Frazier grabbed gold in the 1964 Tokyo Games and won a version of the heavyweight title by 1968. George Foreman, whose flag-waving in the ring was one of the lasting images of the 1968 Mexico City Games, was heavyweight champion by 1973.

But none of the class of 2000 in Sydney — which brought home two silver and two bronze medals, one of the latter gained by the District’s Clarence Vinson — has emerged as a star or come close to winning a world championship.

“Olympic boxing is not what it used to be,” said trainer Emanuel Steward, who has been brought in as USA Boxing’s director of coaching. “But the problem is that no one is in agreement with what they want or need.”

Seward was referring to the controversy over how to train American amateurs for today’s international competition.

There is little hope that America will enjoy an Olympic ring revival in Athens, where competition begins Saturday at Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall.

“We have a lot of young kids with talent, but their maturity level is going to be a problem,” said trainer and ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas, who will work the NBC telecasts. “We come up way short in comparison to some of the other countries in terms of international experience.”

The American team failed to qualify a fighter in two of the 11 weight classes. One class was eliminated after 2000.

Flyweight Ronald Siler, 24, of Cincinnati, is considered one of America’s best shots for a medal. He spent 17 months in prison for driving a stolen vehicle and receiving stolen property.

Other favored Americans include: light welterweight Rock Allen, 22, Philadelphia; middleweight Andre Dirrell, 20, Flint, Mich., a two-time national champion; light heavyweight Andre Ward, 20, Oakland, Calif.; and super heavyweight Jason Estrada, 23, who last year became the first non-Cuban fighter to win that gold medal at the Pan American Games.

The 20-year fall from grace for American boxing stems from a lack of proper training for young fighters, who find themselves competing against grown men with lengthy international experience. There are other factors including the questionable Olympic judging process that rivals figure skating for its controversies and a computerized scoring system that baffles American coaches.

U.S. coach Basheer Abdullah said when computerized scoring was introduced in 2000 — consisting of judges trying to record every punch on a keyboard — the system failed to properly recognize body punching, which is a staple for American fighters. Abdullah is confident both his fighters and the judges will be better prepared in Athens.

“I think amateur judges are scoring more like the pros now,” Abdullah said. “Where the scoring system was more technical in 2000, they’re finally scoring body shots. It used to be that all they counted were straight punches to the head.”

Scoring techniques for Olympic boxing has been suspect since the 1988 Seoul Games, when Roy Jones Jr. seemingly overwhelmed opponent Si-Hun Park of South Korea in three rounds and appeared to have won easily. When Park’s hand was raised, it set off a wave of protests and calls for reform.

What emerged from that reform was computerized scoring devices that hardly helped American fighters. Since the system was introduced in Barcelona in 1992, only two Americans — Oscar De La Hoya in those Games and David Reid in Atlanta in 1996 — have won gold.

That’s a long fall from the height of American Olympic success — the 1976 team in Montreal that included Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael and Leon Spinks and two other gold medalists.

The United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although Americans won nine golds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games with a team that included Mark Breland and Pernell Whittaker, the achievement was tarnished because Eastern Europeans and Cubans stayed away in retaliation to the earlier American boycott.

The Cuban fighters still dominate Olympic boxing — having won 27 boxing golds since Munich in 1972 despite boycotting the 1984 and 1988 Games.

The Soviet Union’s breakup has increased competition from Eastern European fighters — many of them veterans in their 30s.

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