By Ben Shpigel
c.2008 New York Times News Service
BEIJING — Before boxing in what he called the most important bout of his life, the American light flyweight Luis Yanez received conflicting advice. His Olympic coaches were telling him to attack from the opening bell. At the same time, his hometown coaches were reminding him to stay patient.
The resulting confusion led to a loss in the ring that further devastated the team’s medal hopes and brought into focus a disconnect that is threatening to undermine USA Boxing’s attempt to reclaim its glory years. Its nine-man squad, which had been considered the best since 1996, now stands at one, and the United States is guaranteed its worst Olympic showing regardless of how the remaining boxer, the heavyweight Deontay Wilder, fares.
At the heart of the disconnect is the crown jewel of USA Boxing’s rebuilding effort, a residency training program that was reinstated after a 24-year absence. It is a program that required national team members, selected at last August’s Olympic trials, to spend 10 months living and training full-time at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s training center in Colorado Springs.
Though some laud the array of services, which include full-time coaches, financial support, on-site psychologists and nutritionists, those in and out of the program have criticized the effectiveness of taking 18- to 23-year-old boxers from their families and personal coaches and putting them in unfamiliar environs.
The architects of the program, the coach Dan Campbell and the chief executive Jim Millman, admit to being confounded by the shoddy outcome here, where eight boxers failed to reach the medal round and appeared as if they had tuned out the coaching staff.
“It’s hard to say what went wrong at this Olympics,” Campbell said Sunday night. “We thought we had a chance for several guys to make it to this round, but some of them fell to things beyond our control.”
One boxer, Gary Russell Jr., passed out from heat exhaustion and dehydration while trying to make weight a few hours before a mandatory weigh-in. Another, Rau’shee Warren, the reigning flyweight world champion, failed to realize he was losing his opening bout and did not start throwing punches until the closing seconds. The welterweight Demetrius Andrade, who was so disgusted with the judges’ scoring of his 11-9 loss Sunday that he left the ring before the referee could raise the arm of winner, Kim Jung-joo of South Korea, was one of a few who blamed lopsided officiating on early exits.
“It’s just been hard,” said Wilder, who, less than 30 minutes after seeing Andrade break down in tears, beat Mohammed Arjaoui in a bout that was tied 10-10 and decided by a 23-22 score from the judges. “It’s been hard for all of us. People don’t know how hard we’ve been training this year. They only see what we’ve done out here.”
USA Boxing officials knew a return to international prominence would take time, though no one expected this year’s results would be so abysmal. It was one disaster after another, and nowhere was the tension more apparent than Saturday night, when Yanez fought.
His relationship with Campbell reached the flashpoint two months ago when he was kicked off the team for missing three weeks of training camp without permission. Although he was eventually reinstated — after making a public apology, paying a fine and accepting counseling — both sides exchanged vicious words in print, and Campbell told The Associated Press that Yanez was “one of the biggest liars I’ve ever met.”
Under that backdrop, Yanez spoke earlier Saturday to Dennis Rodarte, his coach and the man Yanez credits with turning him from a grade-school troublemaker into a two-time national champion. He left that conversation confident that Rodarte’s recommendation of remaining cautious while using his jab to set up combinations was the right one. Afterward, Campbell said Yanez “did the opposite of what we asked him to do.”
“You have the kid caught in between — his allegiance to his personal coach, we all understand that,” Campbell, speaking generally, said Sunday night. “It becomes, ‘Can they trust me enough to not listen to what somebody else is telling who has never been to an international bout and boxed the way we’ve been training them to box?’ Nine times out of 10, they’re going to revert to the person they’ve been with the most, and that’s the personal coach.”
These tug-of-wars have occurred throughout the Games. Every time Andrade would retreat to the corner after a round Sunday, he would listen to Campbell but also scan the crowd for his father, Paul, who serves as one of his two coaches. As Warren competed Tuesday, his longtime coach Mike Stafford, whom he has known for 15 years since he was 6, watched from the stands at the Workers’ Gymnasium.
“I feel like my mistakes that I’m doing in the ring, he’d be there to correct me,” Warren said of Stafford in a recent interview. “When I’m slipping like I’m on ice, he’d be there to hold me, make sure I wouldn’t fall. Anything I’d do wrong, he’d be there to make right.”
Stafford, a member of the 2004 coaching staff, said: “That’s the story of the whole Olympics. You have to put the right coaches in the right situation to work with the right boxers. It’s hard, but that’s the bottom line at this level.”
To those critics who question his credentials, Campbell, a former probation officer, points to his experience coaching in world championships, junior world championships and Pan-American Games.
He felt it important to gather the team in a central location to foster camaraderie while inculcating the fast-paced international style, which values speed and the ability to score points quickly, to men who have been almost exclusively taught the more rugged professional techniques. He did not want the individual coaches interfering with his instruction — even though at least one coach, Gary Russell Sr., who has been outspoken in his disapproval of Campbell, held secret training sessions with his son in Colorado Springs hotel rooms.
Campbell said he did not think it was a coincidence that the only boxer left, Wilder, is coached by Jay Deas, who he said has not meddled with the training from afar.
“I purposely have tried to be supportive of the program even if what they do is different than what I might have done,” Deas said recently.
The concept of a residency program is hardly limited to the United States. Coaches and officials from Russia, Italy and France say their countries, to varying degrees, mandate their boxers to convene for training and competitions before major international meets.
In the United States, other sports’ governing bodies have worked out this delicate balance with great success. The women’s gymnastic team, for instance, is generally considered the paragon. Athletes train predominantly with their coaches and, depending on the phase in their competition cycles, spend four to seven days once every month or two at the women’s national training center in New Waverly, Texas They learn new elements under the eye of Martha Karolyi, the women’s national team coordinator, before returning home to have those lessons reinforced.
“There’s no conflict of interest,” Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics, said in an interview. “All of the coaches know that their No. 1 priority is the team: team success, team performance. We’ve gotten people thinking along those lines.”
Ideally, that is what USA Boxing hopes to instill as it tries to reverse its decline, which could not come at a worse time, as nations like Thailand, Kazakhstan, Italy and China are joining traditional powers Russia and Cuba among the elite. As recently as 1996, half of the United States’ 12 boxers won medals. Its medal count has decreased by two in every Olympics since then — from six to four to two — with only two golds, fewer than Kazakhstan (four) and Thailand (three), over that span.
Potential solutions abound, and they give Millman hope as he looks forward to the 2012 Games in London. On a fundamental level, Millman said he could envision diminishing the length of the program and integrating the hometown coaches more.
“If we can do a better job on the communication end and get more buy-in from the coach, then he’ll become an advocate for everything we’re trying to do,” Millman said.
Campbell wondered aloud whether it would be beneficial to bring in the next wave, perhaps those who compete on the Junior Olympic level, for additional camps in Colorado Springs. The trainer Teddy Atlas, who is an analyst for NBC, said that part of the problem — which can be fixed, he added — was that USA Boxing had an identity crisis.
“Are we trying to develop an Olympic program that can be competitive on a world stage or is this a breeding ground for the pros?” Atlas said. “What’s our priority? Be honest. If you want to upgrade your Olympic program, then you have to start holding more camps, setting up seminars, anything that you can do to start as early as you can.”
Atlas discussed these issues 10 days ago, before the competition began, before the three first-round losses, before only one boxer reached the medal round, before Yanez ignored Campbell’s message. His words are haunting.
“These kids, quite honestly, seemed like they just wanted to get to the Olympics, do as well as they could do, and then move on to their pro careers,” Atlas said. “That’s a pretty fair statement. The only way to make a difference is to do something for the next group. For these kids, the die has been cast.”