THE greatest challenge facing the sport is the crisis affecting amateur boxing. The outlook is of profound concern. In this magazine we’ve been speaking to clubs throughout the country that have been struggling to preserve their gyms and keep operating under the coronavirus restrictions. Debates swirl about the future of professional boxing, but it’s the situation confronting those at the grassroots levels that is most alarming. The foundation of the sport in this country is amateur boxing (and if that doesn’t have a future, the pro side won’t either).
So how bad is the crisis?
It is exceptionally bad. Amateur boxers can’t even box at the moment. They can’t spar and they can’t do padwork. Clubs can open but training sessions are curtailed in terms of activity. They can only do shadowboxing, bagwork, fitness etc. while meeting social distancing requirements. This clearly reduces the numbers of boxers who can take part in training sessions. Immediately that is a loss of income for clubs. The further worry is that without normal training, like sparring or doing pads, and certainly without being able to compete, boxers are going to be inclined to drift away from the sport. There are no championships on the horizon. Those should happen next year, and clubs are not permitted to hold their own shows. Coronavirus means at present gatherings like that cannot happen. This is also understandably frustrating for boxers and another factor that could see talent drain from the sport. It’s another blow to finances of clubs, whose home shows typically are vital means of fundraising.
It could always be worse. The government hasn’t put the country back into full lockdown. Clubs can remain open. Despite the tightening of coronavirus restrictions nationwide, clubs that are providing a Covid-secure environment don’t have to follow the ‘rule of six’ that is limiting the size of groups. Following England Boxing’s guidelines means participants can be safe and clubs and coaches are not exposed to lack of insurance cover or breaches of the government’s laws and regulations, and the potential fines that are now associated with them. (England Boxing reminds clubs that whilst they can continue to operate with the numbers decided in their risk assessment, people should remain socially distanced by 2m and not congregate in groups of more than six both within venues and going to and from them.)
The importance of amateur clubs cannot be overstated. They exemplify all the positive aspects of the sport. Like many community groups, they provide an important intervention for young people at a crucial time in their lives. These clubs matter greatly for the well being of those who use them (and it’s worth noting too that exercise, even at the height of lockdown, was encouraged and at the heart the government’s response). More than any other sport, amateur boxing reaches the most deprived areas in the country. These clubs should be national treasures.
The fear is that while clubs may have weathered the impact of the first months of this crisis, the situation looks to continue for many more months and the future remains desperately uncertain.
But the Olympics is still happening?
That’s the plan. The Tokyo Olympic Games were postponed by a year and remain scheduled for July 23 to August 8 2021. Even then that will be a monumental task to accomplish in an era of coronavirus. Thousands of athletes from across the world will be assembling in Tokyo and local government and Olympic officials will need to make sure they can compete in as safe a way as possible taking into account the risks of spreading Covid in Japan or bringing it back to their home countries. The International Olympic Committee at present however remains confident. “In our planning and scheduling, we all have a great responsibility, not only for our respective stakeholders, but for the entire sports community,” IOC president Thomas Bach said. “From experience, we know that every mishap that affects one of us affects all of us – and has the potential to undo the great progress we have made together in the past few months.
“In this context, we are monitoring the potential of innovative testing methods for the safe organisation of events.
“In addition to the already existing test methods, there are a number of so-called rapid tests already on the market or under development.
“When used in combination with other virus countermeasures, such rapid tests give us an important additional tool to ensure a safe environment for everyone involved.”
In Britain, those on the Olympic squad are the only boxers in the amateur sport who can train as normal, with padwork and sparring. This is due to a government ruling allowing those who make a living from the sport, like professional boxers, to do so and extends to the Olympic programme. The GB gym at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield also has the resources to create the appropriate training environment. They have the funds, a large, well ventilated space to train in, accommodation for the boxers, masks and PPE for the coaches, they can do regular screening and so forth.
GB have been able to send their men’s and women’s teams on training camps with Turkey. If international camps can happen, it’s an encouraging sign that some form of international competition can take place, in a limited way, before the end of this year. That will hopefully lead to the Olympic qualifiers being picked up in the early months of 2021 from where they were left off this year.
But lessons from this process need to be taken on board and shared so that eventually amateur boxing at other levels across the country can begin to approach some normality. All the while, as it remains partly suspended, the talent drain will continue. The England Youth and Junior squads can’t train fully or compete. Nor can boxers who aren’t yet on the GB squad but would have been looking to make their mark and launch their careers at the national amateur championships this year. Already boxers who had significant international achievements as Youths and Juniors are turning professional. This is early in their development and hardly an ideal time to turn over too when competitive opportunities there are limited. But it’s understandable when turning pro at least allows them to spar. Amateur boxing risks losing a generation of talent, just when Britain was becoming a global force. GB boxers featuring prominently in AIBA’s world rankings bodes well for British success at the highest level. But also the Talent Pathway for young boxers has been in place for a few years and that has been paying dividends. In Junior and Youth categories England boxers have been winning more international medals than ever before. At these levels recently England has even been rivalling Russia. Now there’s a risk of losing that progress.
It remains unclear how international boxing in general is going to stage a return. AIBA, the world governing body, at present have been conspicuous by the silence when it comes to how the sport should address coronavirus. They should be doing more to support the sport, but even then that would only be a tangential benefit to domestic boxing in the UK and the amateur clubs and communities they support. Getting Olympic boxing up and running would be a positive step, yes, but that alone won’t help nourish the grassroots that are essential to the whole sport.
What can done?
England Boxing has been a conduit of information for clubs on accessing grants, what the changing coronavirus restrictions mean for boxing activity in gyms and the national federation has been lobbying the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on behalf of boxing.
England Boxing’s chief executive Gethin Jenkins was one of a hundred sports leaders who were signatories to a letter to the Prime Minister calling for funding and security for the industry. The coalition requests an urgent support package from the government, as has been provided to the arts and restaurant sectors, that will enable the sport and activity sector to continue to provide programmes and facilities that address the health inequalities highlighted by the Covid 19 pandemic and support the NHS by improving health outcomes. They are asking the government to deliver a Sports Recovery Fund, pointing out that a report published by Sport England and Sheffield Hallam University this month showed that every £1 spent on community sport and physical activity generates nearly £4 for the English economy, providing an annual contribution of more than £85 billion a year, with a social value of more than £72 billion a year, measured by physical and mental health and wellbeing and individual and community development. Grassroots sport and physical activity is an essential part of the UK’s recovery, not just in terms of improved physical wellbeing and reducing the burden on the NHS, but the positive impact it has on mental wellbeing, as well as helping to overcome societal challenges such as loneliness, crime and isolation.
“Our sector is united in its call to the Prime Minister to back grassroots sport and physical activity so that our clubs, gyms and leisure facilities can throw their full weight behind fighting this pandemic,” said Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive. “This is a health crisis and our sector can play a vital role in supporting our NHS by restoring the nation’s physical and mental resilience in the face of this terrible virus.
“We call on the government to deliver the urgent fiscal, taxation and regulatory support required to save sports and activity providers across the UK from disappearing from our communities at the time they are needed most.”
Lisa Wainwight, CEO of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, said, “The strength of this coalition from the sports, recreation and activity sector cannot be ignored in its public call to the Prime Minister.
“The Covid 19 pandemic has put an incredible strain on our sector, which was forced to close for a prolonged period.
“It is imperative that our sector gets the support it requires from the Government to get back to business, in order to ease the pressures on the NHS and play a central role in our nation’s recovery from Covid 19.”
On an individual level fundraising of course matters. But, as charities across the country are finding, that is especially tricky at the moment, given the bleak economic context. Clubs can’t host events, normally their mainstay when it comes to generating support. Many though have set up their own fundraising pages. Some introduced online training during the lockdown, maybe those avenues could be developed into new revenue streams. But these clubs will need support during this period. If you have a local club and you can help them, now is the time. That can be financial, but raising awareness and understanding is important too.
I find it very easy to feel gloomy at present. But it’s been consistently inspiring to speak to people in amateur boxing over the last few months. During lockdown clubs, with enough of their own problems, have been going out to deliver food packages to those who need it, because it’s what they do. Gyms battling to secure their premises, while delivering a real service in communities that need it, keep on fighting. Because they’re boxing people. They don’t give up. Their supporters shouldn’t either.