LONG before the golds, the funding and the centre of excellence, there was the disaster in Atlanta when David Burke went missing and Fola Okesola had no chance.
That was a bad year for British amateur boxing, a very bad year. The British pair never won a fight and their performances were ignored, part of a dreadful two weeks, dipping like so many under a weak radar. It’s the Olympics that everybody likes to forget, the Olympics where members of the GB team sold their kit on street corners in downtown Atlanta; a city with busy corners. The GB team won just one gold medal in Atlanta. It was an awful fortnight. In the boxing hall there were no wins, no medals, no hope.
This story starts a few months earlier in Denmark, in Velje, the home of Lego. It starts over a few days and ends early on a Saturday morning in a pair of box-offs. It was the European championships, the Olympic qualifier, the place for making and breaking dreams. It was late March but I remember there was about six-inches of snow on the ground.
Atlanta and the promise of heat and Olympic glory seemed a long, long way off that frosty week.
At heavyweight, Okesola won his opener and was then beaten by Sweden’s Kwamena Turkson. It meant Fola made the box-off for an Atlanta spot. On the Saturday, he lost to Denmark’s Michael Ibsen. The Olympics for the South Londoner were over.
At featherweight, Burke was one of the best in a serious division. Burke won three times and lost in the semi-final to Serafim Todorov. It meant Burke had booked his place on the plane to Atlanta. However, also at featherweight, Scott Harrison won three times, lost to Ramaz Paliani and qualified for the Olympics. England and Scotland, two vests, one place, one problem. They had to fight for their Olympic place; it was an unconventional little drama and harsh on both. It was also and remains a lost gem.
It was decided that Harrison and Burke would box-off for the one spot. It was not, trust me, ideal; there was talk of it being delayed and both delegations argued their boxer had overcome stiffer opposition to earn their Olympic vest. It is the most celebrated vest in boxing.
In the end, they fought and Burke won; a score of 6-3 was certainly not indecent. Both, incidentally, were tired. They returned with rare European bronze medals. In the featherweight final, Paliani beat Todorov. We are not finished with the Bulgarian, Todorov. And Harrison and Burke, by the way, were exceptional boxers at a time when GB men were still Europe’s softest touch.
Three weeks later, the Danish authorities decided Ibsen had very little chance in Atlanta and Okesola joined Burke on the plane. Ian Irwin, the GB coach, was optimistic for a wild card or two, but nobody else received an invite. It was just the two of them. Burke was capable of a medal in Atlanta, trust me.
It gets messy and confused after that. I have a classified document, compiled by a member of the GB boxing team and it is not pleasant reading. The boxers went to Tallahassee, Florida, to prepare for the heat of Atlanta. In the weeks before the first bell at the Olympics they each perform sluggishly, seem distant, uncooperative. It can happen now, even with the layers of support; preparing an elite boxer for a major event is not a strict science, there is no definitive blueprint, boxers can lose their way and in Rio several GB boxers underperformed. The men and women in charge of getting the very best – at the right time – from their boxers often have a joyless task. The men in control of Burke and Okesola in 1996 knew their stuff, they had experience. It just went wrong.
With just a few days to go, Burke was seriously constipated and Okesola’s form and attitude remained disturbing. In Atlanta, Burke also went missing and is found the following day. He was staying with his family. The break was probably needed.
Okesola was drawn against American Nate Jones and was stopped with seven seconds left of the third. Jones eventually won a bronze, gained several stone and became the life-long confidant of another member of the USA team in Atlanta, Floyd Mayweather.
Okesola’s loss is less than a blip on the boxing scanner and Jones would be close to invisible without a decade or more of his body-bag sessions with Mayweather.
Burke had a hard, hard draw and had his first fight against Germany’s Falk Huste, one of those old-school, veteran boxers that are increasingly rare. Burke lost 13-9, he never really got going. It was a fight that another version of Burke would have won. His Olympics were over. Huste then lost to Todorov and Todorov beat Mayweather in the semi-final. Mayweather screamed the place down, but there was nothing in it; Todorov lost in the final to Thailand’s Somluck Kamsing. In Thailand, Kamsing remains an idol.
And then the two British boxers were free of expectation and dread. As I said, it’s the Games we all like to forget. Audley Harrison comes next, then Amir Khan and then the deluge. Atlanta is lost in time, a bleak time.
After the Olympics, Okesola turns professional, wins three and loses twice.
Mayweather graduates through the world of boxing to face the world’s finest YouTubers. Big Nate is still at his side. Todorov scuffles on the circuit, winning six of seven as a pro and eventually ends up with a lucrative cigarette stand in Sofia. My gosh, Bulgarians love their snout.
Burke turns professional, wins a Commonwealth title at lightweight, loses just three of 30 and is, I truly believe, one of the most neglected British amateurs from the last fifty years.
And then there is Scott Harrison, a man still dreaming of fights after decades and still battling his demons. What a fighter he became after Velje. It’s been a long and bloody journey for the kid who secured a place at the Olympics one day and lost it the next. It’s cruel, this boxing game.