South Africans sent to Havana to learn Cuban secrets

News from Cuba | Wednesday, 27 July 2011

By Ken Borland

South Africa's lamentable performance at the Commonwealth Games boxing tournament in Delhi has prompted the country's sports chiefs to send 10 of its best fighters to Cuba in a bid to avoid similar failure at next year's London Olympics.

The four boxers who competed in Delhi failed to win a single bout let alone a medal, continuing a decline that has seen no South African Olympic boxing medallists since the country was allowed back into the international fold.

Over the next few weeks a team of South Africans will study the methods which have made Cuba an Olympic boxing powerhouse.

"It's like sending soccer players to Brazil. Cuba are one of the world's top boxing nations and it's very exciting for us, we'll get a lot of experience from the camp," Lebogan Pilane, one of the boxers who under-achieved in India and who will benefit from the programme, told Reuters in Johannesburg on the eve of the squad's departure.

The diminutive Pilane, who hails from the mining town of Welkom in the northern Free State, is an amateur light flyweight champion in South Africa, but was part of the team which returned empty-handed from the Commonwealth Games.

A stint with coaches of the Havana Boxing Federation could help Pilane and his team mates stand more of a chance of making an impact in London next year providing they mange to qualify, according to Barries Barnard of the South African National Amateur Boxing Organisation (SANABO).

"Cuba are one of the powerhouses of world boxing and I want these guys to steal with the eye, bring back information from Cuba so we can get our act together," Barries said.

Cuba has led the way in Olympic boxing, with 32 gold medals since 1968, and has a good relationship with South Africa dating back to its support for the anti-Apartheid movement.

Gideon Sam, the president of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC), has identified boxing as one of the sports that needs drastic improvement in light of the disappointing performances since South Africa returned from exile at the 1992 Olympics.

South Africa won four gold, four silver and eight bronze boxing medals prior to isolation, but none since 1992, despite the sport being one of the most popular in the country, particularly in the previously-disadvantaged communities.

Barnard estimates that there are about 4,500 amateur boxers in South Africa. "Many people have been saying it's about time boxing came to the party and brought home a medal," he said.

London may even come to early for South Africa's boxers but Sam said they need to build for the future.

"We need a greater effort and we want to ensure as much exposure as possible for our boxers," he said.

"We had just one boxer qualify for the Beijing Olympics, which is not good enough. If we want to be serious contenders, then this programme is what we need to do."

Both Sam and Barnard said South Africa's lack of success in amateur boxing was largely due to young prospects fleeing for the paid ranks too soon in their careers.

"Too many coaches and trainers rush our youngsters into the paid ranks, where they have one or two fights and then that's the end of them. We need to keep them longer in the amateur ranks, cook them longer there," Sam said.


"The problem is, most of our boxers come from disadvantaged areas and their parents want to see them earning money quickly. My vision is to plough a lot of money into amateur boxing and give a stipend to keep the wolf from the door."

Barnard said he hoped South Africa will follow Cuba's example. "In Cuba they don't turn professional, the boys go to the Olympics for a second or third time. Their total attention is on amateur boxing.

"But one of the biggest problems in African boxing in general is guys turning professional too early, the pros steal from us, lure our guys away.

"We've definitely got excellent raw talent, it abounds in South Africa. But we need a long-term boxing development plan and talent identification."

The boxers will be in Cuba until August 5, and will then return to South Africa with coaches from the Caribbean island.

"The boxers will reside at Free State University with their Cuban coaches, so there will be transfer of knowledge," Sam said. "They will get a solid foundation and hopefully learn some of the tricks in the book of boxing."

Qualification for next year's Olympics begins in earnest at the world championships in Baku, Azerbaijan in September where around 100 spots in the 10 men's weights will be up for grabs.

The majority of the remaining places will be allocated through continental qualifying competitions.

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