Cuba worried the IOC will ring boxing's final bell

The Olympics flag is handed from London Mayor, Boris Johnson, second from left, to the International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge at the closing of the 2012 Olympics. (AP)
The Olympics flag is handed from London Mayor, Boris Johnson, second from left, to the International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge at the closing of the 2012 Olympics. (AP)

Havana - Olympic champion in 2016 and four times a world champion, Julio Cesar La Cruz has his eye on Tokyo 2020 glory. 

That would take him one step closer to Cuba's all-time boxing greats Felix Savon and Teofilo Stevenson, both three-time Games gold medallists, but La Cruz, who's known as the shadow for his elusive brilliance, may never get that chance as boxing faces a fight to save its Olympic life. 

The International Olympic Committee has threatened to kick the sport, one of the competition's oldest disciplines, out of the Games after IOC president Thomas Bach said he was "extremely worried about the governance of" amateur boxing governing body AIBA. 

For Cuba, such a move would be a disaster as boxing is the one sport in which the island nation is a super-power, having won almost half of its 78 summer Olympic gold medals in the sport. 

"That would be a very hard blow for the Cuban delegation if it could no longer count on its boxing titles," said La Cruz, a 29-year-old with a mouth that sparkles from gold teeth. 

With 37 Olympic titles and 73 world championship crowns, Cuba is the most successful nation in international boxing at what was once called the amateur level but in which many fighters now train full time. 

Boosted by a unique ability to hold onto its biggest stars, such as Savon and Stevenson who were never seduced by the trappings of professionalism, Cuba has been able to dominate the amateur game for decades. 

Cuban boxers were famously banned by iconic late president Fidel Castro from turning professional and fighting for personal wealth rather than their country's benefit. 

Some inevitably did defect, most recently double Olympic champion Robeisy Ramirez, who walked out of a training camp in Mexico in July. 

The lure of professional spoils used to be the main threat to Cuba's vast boxing pedigree, but now it comes from sport's most prestigious governing body. 

A scandal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games saw the entire 36-member AIBA delegation of referees and officials suspended due to allegations of match-fixing, and things have only gone downhill since then for the sport. 

The IOC's patience with AIBA wore thinner still earlier this month with the election as president of controversial Uzbek businessman Gafur Rakhimov. 

The 67-year-old has been linked to organised crime by the US Treasury Department, although he vehemently denies the allegations, saying his appearance on the US Treasury's list was "a mistake." 

The IOC is due to rule on boxing's 2020 participation at an executive committee meeting in Tokyo on Friday and Saturday. 

While the threat is real, Cuba's boxing federation president Alberto Puig remains serene. 

"We have no doubt that boxing will be at the Olympics" in 2020, he said. 

Puig, who recently returned from AIBA's congress in Russia, is quick to defend Rakhimov. 

"There were historic problems both in governance and financial issues," he said. 

"AIBA was in debt by more than $39 million, it was bankrupt and it's been sorted out by Gafur's management and that of the rest of the team we're working with in the executive committee." 

Should boxing survive at the Olympics, Cuba will be expecting to continue their renaissance since the shock of failing to win a title at the Beijing Games in 2008. 

Two gold medals at London 2012 and three more in Rio have left Puig feeling confident, although he refused to commit to a Tokyo prediction: "It's a secret," he said, adding only that the aim was to "improve on the number of medals from the Rio Olympics," in which three bronze medals were also won. 

If some fighters are worried, national team coach Rolando Acebal tells them to "calm down, don't worry, it will be sorted out." 

He says it's "unthinkable" that boxing could be scrapped from the Olympics as it's "one of the oldest sports in history," whose Ancient Olympics inclusion can be traced back to 688BC. 

Acebal is proud that boxing is "Cuba's flagship sport" and the fact that the tiny country remains a reference for others. Recently, Cuba hosted a training camp for Germany's Olympic team. 

"Everyone wants to prepare with Cubans because we have a mix of European and American styles, with a lot of coordination," said Acebal. 

He can only hope that the IOC will decide against ringing boxing's final bell.

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