LONDON — Sometimes you end up at an Olympic venue and see a controversial loss or a robbery of a decision. You quickly search for a culprit — a corrupt judge, a cheating opponent, anyone that explains why the good, ol’ U.S. of A. did not win — because in some athletic disciplines we unfortunately feel it’s our birthright to ascend podiums.
Boxing, for instance, where the United States won 50 medals at the Games between 1968 and 2000 and 19 gold medals in the five Olympics Americans participated in between 1976 and 1996. Boxing is where amateur coaches like the late Pat Nappi stuck around for two decades, working the mitts for the Spinks brothers or Meldrick Taylor, helping the same young prospects before they turn pro, year after year.
But when a kid named Terrell Gausha becomes the seventh of nine U.S. men’s fighters eliminated before the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament, and his head coach can’t even be ringside — when the great tradition of amateur pugilism in America takes another overhand right to the temple — it’s clear who’s at fault: USA Boxing, the sport’s chaotic and clownish governing body.
You want to know the root of why boxing is on life support? It’s not merely because Floyd Mayweather is in jail or Manny Pacquiao and Mayweather won’t fight. It’s not because the heavyweight division is a shadow of what it once was or mixed martial arts has entered the fray as a competitor. The sanctioning bodies were as crooked in the 1980s as they are today.
No, it’s because not enough people care about the amateur programs any more. They aren’t funded like they should be. The U.S. system doesn’t nurture Golden Gloves champs like it used to, ensuring they’re marketed as Olympic stars before they take off the headgear and the profession becomes genuinely dangerous. Worse, small-time bureaucracies such as USA Boxing choose the suits and chaos over the kids and stability.
“I’ve been boxing for 11 years in amateurs,” said the U.S. team captain here, Jamel Herring, 26. “Back then, in 2001, we still had a great program. You could tell athletes were being taken care of. I’m not trying to knock anybody, but it’s time we started looking out for the athletes — not for individuals and job titles on the next level.”
Herring is a U.S. Marine sergeant, who has seen two tours of duty in Iraq. He knows organization and structure are keys to success, which is why the people who govern these kids make no sense to anyone.
Do you know how long the U.S. coaches have worked with the U.S. boxing team? A month. Do you know their head coach, named six weeks ago after the last guy was fired, can’t sit ringside because he hasn’t been credentialed by the IOC? As Rick Maese chronicled for The Post, the entire organization has been turned upside down in less than a year.
If you grew up shadow-boxing in the mirror, pretending you were Sugar Ray Seales in Munich or Sugar Ray Leonard or Howard Davis in Montreal, Roy Jones or Pernell Whitaker in Seoul or Oscar de la Hoya in Barcelona, what’s happened to the U.S. Olympic boxing must feel like a devastating uppercut to the stomach.
“The amateur program as a whole needs a lot of work — it needs to be rebuilt completely,” Herring said after Gausha, a middleweight, and Jose Ramirez, a lightweight, lost Thursday night in London. Gausha probably should have been awarded the decision against India’s Vijender Singh, but he many more problems before he even stepped into the ring.
“I wanted to lift American boxing up, but I wasn’t able to,” he said, becoming the fifth straight U.S. fighter to lose before the quarterfinals.
It’s not your fault, Terrell. USA Boxing sent kids here who largely were inexperienced and not yet ready for prime time. The fact that seven of the nine are gone isn’t as big a surprise as the fact that only flyweight Rau’Shee Warren, the first three-time Olympian in U.S. boxing, was the only seeded fighter entering the tournament.
Think about that. The country that gave you five gold medals in 1976 and nine in 1984 spawned one ranked fighter prior to an Olympic tournament, one bronze medal in Beijing and long-shot hopes in London.
If Warren or welterweight hope Errol Spence don’t come home with a medal, the United States will be shut out in men’s boxing for the first time in an Olympic Games that it has competed in.
From the nation that gave you Olympians who became Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Leonard, Holyfield, de la Hoya, Mayweather, that’s not just embarrassing — that’s unacceptable.
“The coaches mean well,” Herring said. “I can’t blame them. It’s not their fault that we didn’t really have a training camp or anything. But we need change. We need funding. We need people to actually look out for the boxers instead of themselves if we’re going to have a great amateur program again.”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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