In January, the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China forced the Boxing Task Force — the body created by the International Olympic Committee to control boxing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic — to cancel the Asia and Oceania qualifying event, scheduled for the start of February in the Chinese city.
The qualifying event — scheduled to be held between Feb. 3-14 — was scrapped and became the first Olympic qualifier in any sport to fall victim to the virus; it was the keystone in many ways of the growing pandemic and scheduling mayhem that now threatens the Olympics.
Who gets to compete at the Olympics if the long-established and complicated qualification tournaments in most sports are cancelled? It’s not invite only, that’s for sure.
The Wuhan qualifier was moved to Amman, Jordan, and was completed without drama earlier this month, just a few days after the completion of the African version in Dakar, Senegal. The new BTF had acted professionally, swiftly and it was an auspicious start for the men and women entrusted with the continuation of what was once universally called amateur boxing.
On Monday, the third of the four continental qualifiers was suspended, just three days into the 10-day competition. The European qualifier in London had started with the public in attendance, but the third day was closed to spectators. By the time of the afternoon session, the BTF announced that Monday would be the final day of competition.
It was heart-breaking news for the boxers.
“The BTF will continue to evaluate the situation daily,” it said in a statement. “Aiming to complete the distribution of the remaining Tokyo 2020 boxing quote places in May and June.”
There is still time, but it is tight.
The Americas Olympic boxing qualifier — scheduled to start in Buenos Aires, Argentina next week — has been postponed. So, too, has the 12-day final qualifier, often referred to as the “world” qualifier, in Paris that was due to start in May.
The third day of the European Olympic boxing event in east London was held without spectators due to the coronavirus. Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images
The final session of boxing at the Copper Box, part of London’s Olympic legacy from 2012, was spectacular for the GB squad, and two British boxers, Peter McGrail and Galal Yafai, won their contests to qualify for the Olympics. McGrail was the No. 1 seed and a European champion, while Yafai has now qualified for two Olympics, having been part of the GB team in Rio four years ago.
“Peter and Galal are top class and it will give the team a big lift to know that two of the boxers have already qualified,” Team GB head of boxing Robert McCracken said. There were 13 British boxers — eight men and five women — in contention for a place in Tokyo.
On Monday night, before the last bell had sounded and the 322 boxers from 42 countries in Europe started to make their way home, four other British boxers had advanced to the later rounds, edging closer to qualifying, and just one had lost.
“It’s a massive disappointment for all of the boxers who had worked so hard to get themselves in great shape for the tournament,” McCracken added. “We will see what happens from here, but the plan is to have the boxers back in camp next week and make sure they stay focused and prepare well.”
In Britain, the governing body of the professional game cancelled all events until the start of April when there will be a meeting to discuss continuing or lifting the ban; in April and May there are several high-profile fights planned in Britain, events that are pay-per-view and have been planned for a long, long time. They must now be in jeopardy.
Matchroom boxing, the promoters of world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, announced that they are cancelling all their fight dates in April and they have already rearranged two of the scrapped fights for June.
Peter McGrail qualified for a place at Tokyo 2020 on Monday along with Team GB teammate Galal Yafai. James Chance/Getty Images
The planned fight on 2 May in Las Vegas between Saul Canelo Alvarez and unbeaten Billy Joe Saunders is no longer being discussed, which is not a shock with the venue, the MGM, currently closed. Canelo’s two fights each year in Las Vegas are an enormous boost for the local economy.
Boxing, unlike most sports, does not have a calendar, a league, a tournament to follow that will be disrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic, but hundreds of boxers, trainers and other people in the boxing business will struggle financially as fights from Riga to Atlantic City pull the plug. All of the postponed fights and those likely to be scrapped can be rescheduled, but there is no guarantee of compensation for professional boxing’s workforce.
The itinerary for qualification to box at the Tokyo Olympics is in turmoil, the excluded boxers, the men and women in their corners and their national organisations have no real idea when events will be rescheduled. The brutal truth is that nobody in the game knows for certain that there will actually be boxing at the Olympics this year. The BTF, created only last year to replace the disgraced AIBA, now has to lead from the very front, create confidence and put in place some contingency plans to appease the fears of everybody in the version of the sport they govern.
It is the cruellest of uncertain conditions for the thousands of boxers still dreaming of fighting at the Olympics. And it could get even worse for the men and women that qualified in Amman and Dakar and the few who won through in the last hours on Monday — they have qualified for the greatest show on earth, their dreams have come true, but that show could now be threatened.