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‘It’s never easy to turn those Olympic medals made from silver and gold into riches, happiness and fame. Men have died and vanished trying’

Olympic medals
Al Bello /Allsport
Sad tales of stars with Olympic medals who could not shine after the Games. By Steve Bunce

HE had the ceremonial robe with the swan-feather lining ready and the style to crossover and become a huge boxing star. Well, that’s one version and it’s the one I like. He was just 20 years of age; he had the gold medal in a box and his future was as bright as that stunning medal. And then, on New Year’s eve, just a few months after winning the gold in Sydney, he was killed in a car crash. The sad story of Kazak Bekzat Sattarkhanov is not, according to my Kazak pals, an ordinary story. He was the nation’s golden boy, loved outside the ring and exceptional inside the ropes.

In Sydney, he beat the American idol Ricardo Rocky Juarez in the featherweight final after Juarez had stopped the 1996 champion, Somluck Kamsing, on his way to the final. Juarez was also the reigning world amateur champion and at the end he barely acknowledged the kid from Kazakhstan; Juarez and the USA team believe that Sattarkhanov should have been warned for holding, and they have a point. The Cold War was not dead in Sydney, possibly it will never die in the boxing ring at any Olympics ever. It was there in Tokyo last Sunday.

After the loss, Juarez turned professional just three months later and fell short, agonisingly short, several times in fights for major belts. He had a draw with Chris John and dropped a split to Marco Antonio Barrera.

In death, the Kazaks celebrated their lost boy; there was a book, a documentary and a six-part dramatisation of his life. I have watched a bit of the drama and it’s a beauty, packed with mountains, longing looks and hard sessions in the gym and ring. The film’s director recreated a scene, a famous scene, where doctors examine Bekzat after a two-hour session; a hard, gruelling session – could there be any other kind in Kazak boxing? The shocked doctors discover that his heart rate is normal. “It is like he has just gone for a walk in the park,” one says. I seem to remember the same thing being written about Gennady Golovkin. There was also a stamp, a sports centre and there is an annual boxing event named after Bekzat.

After Sydney, he was welcomed back to Astana by a devoted flock, waiting on the runway at the airport. He came down the steps, was up on shoulders, smiling and waving his gold medal. He was then honoured and presented with a medal by the Kazak head of state. He was their boy, make no mistake.

One of the highlights of the documentary is an interview with Sattarkhanov, filmed up a mountain next to a river, and in the background the rest of the Kazak boxing squad are picking up river-bed rocks and throwing them as they throw punches. The Kazaks are mighty at this boxing caper. It is well known that deep inside the powerful Soviet boxing machine, the fighters from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan missed out on a lot of opportunities at major international events. The blonde, blue-eyed boys from Russia and Ukraine were favoured. Sattarkhanov was part of the independent movement, picking up in Sydney from Vasily Jirov’s gold in Atlanta four years earlier. The Jirov gold medal was the start of the dynasty we still have.

And then he was in a car with two friends, it was New Year’s eve in 2000. The car crashed, he died, his friends survived and the nation mourned. He has a shrine in death, a beautiful granite structure with his medal carved across the flat surface. He is still worshipped. Juarez would have loved a rematch of his 2000 Olympic featherweight final.

Oddly, from the same Olympics, there would be a rematch in the professional game of an important and infamous light-welterweight fight. In Sydney, another American, Ricardo Williams Jnr, lost to Uzbekistan’s Mahammatkodir Abdullaev 27-20 in the final. Williams had a brutal road to the final, beating Ajose Olusegun from the St Pancras club, the Russian and the Cuban before the final day fight. However, Abdullaev had to beat a young Puerto Rican called Miguel Cotto in his first series fight. The score was 17-7 against Cotto and his Olympics finished very early. It remained on his mind.

In the pro game, Abdullaev was 15 and one and Cotto was unbeaten in 23, and the WBO light-welterweight belt-holder, when they met in 2005; Cotto won in the ninth at Madison Square Garden, an arena he made his own. Abdullaev had a few more fights and walked away from boxing in 2011. Not quite lost, but generally forgotten.

Williams, meanwhile, is firmly one of the Olympians who lost his way. After the Olympics, Williams Jnr signed a deal with Lou DiBella and received a bonus of $1.4 million. It was not, it has to be said, a ridiculous fee. Williams was just 19 at the time and seemed made for the professionals. He was not, sadly. He clearly lost his way very fast.

There is a great line from Ricardo Snr, his father and coach, on the problems of making a champion from a child star: “You ever try to tell a 19-year-old millionaire what to do?” It’s a brutal line, I love it. DiBella, as honest as ever, admitted: “I never did enough research on him.”

He lost his 10th fight and was then arrested on cocaine distribution charges. He received 31 months, tried to fight again three years later, after his release. But it was gone, the sparkle was gone. He finally finished with boxing in 2014, a talent lost to the pro game and an Olympic silver medal winner.

It’s never easy to turn those medals made from silver and gold into riches, happiness and fame. Men have died and vanished trying.

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