Adrian Mourant looks at moves to have boxing recognised for examination purposes
Boxing's rehabilitation from the days when it was considered mad, bad and dangerous for boys to take part in, is well advanced. But not, says the Schools Amateur Boxing Association (SABA), because of the Amir Khan factor.
Interest was swelling long before Khan threw his Olympic medal-winning punches.
Condemned in the 1960s by the doctors' union, the British Medical Association and Labour politicians, boxing found itself a pariah sport. But now even Tessa Jowell, secretary of state for culture and sport, is flirting with it.
"If we're exposing children to a wide range of sport with proper safeguards and protections, I wouldn't object to boxing," she says. That remark came in the warm glow generated by Amir Khan's silver Olympic medal. And what's offered these days for beginners in schools is far removed from violent unarmed combat.
Non-contact boxing - Kid Gloves - is usually the starting point, where manoeuvres and ring skills are learned. You only get to hit a punchbag or an opponent's fist - no blows to the head are allowed. With boxing proper, there are head guards. Tournaments have rules, applicable worldwide, that prevent outclassed opponents being pounded to pulp.
On a list of sports, the dangers of boxing, say protagonists, ranks far below those of rugby. Apart from fitness and hand to eye co-ordination, boxing teaches valuable lessons for life, says Cdr Rod Robertson, SABA's chairman. "It eliminates bullying and reduces truancy. It teaches you discipline and respect; to defer to the referee."
Jim Smart, chairman of the Amateur Boxing Association of England (ABAE) agrees. When, in the 1980s, he became head of Churchmead, Datchet, a struggling school near Windsor, he introduced two things that served him well in the army, music and boxing.
"We had travellers' children from a nearby village. Their attendance record improved; discipline improved - the kids never forgot their kit," he says.
"You built up a good relationship with the children. I felt I could talk to them about boxing. I'd support them at their tournaments."
The attraction of boxing for travellers' children is confirmed by Damian Ridpath who runs a boxing club in Warrington, Cheshire. He's also the town's sports development officer and responsible for SABA's national schools liaison. Mr Ridpath reckons boxing as a boy saved his life: training gave his body the flexibility that allowed him to survive a serious crash when, as a 17-year-old, he was hurled out of the back of a car. He rebuilt his life, turned to coaching, and by 18 set up his own club.
He's now moved it to William Beaumont Community College, which has sports specialist status, and forged links with more than 40 schools in the Warrington area. It seems they can't get enough of boxing.
"William Beaumont asked me to design something that could be taken into primaries," he says. "I go into five or six schools a week and deliver Skillbox and Kid Gloves."
Skillbox is non-contact. It teaches agility and develops strength and motor skills. About 600 children, some as young as five, take part. But while "inundated" with inquiries from heads about introducing boxing in some form, SABA admits its own organisation has been incoherent and that successes are largely down to individuals such as Damian Ridpath. No one seems to know how many children are taking part nationally. But that may change: SABA is determined to get more of a grip and has drafted a 29 point plan to be presented to Sport England.
"We want them to provide a development officer because of the enormous interest in boxing," said Cdr Robertson. SABA priorities are strengthening links with Parliamentary supporters - former sports minister Kate Hoey is a vice president - local authorities and police liaison officers. It recognises the need to improve business, marketing and PR and wants to be the vehicle through which partnerships are developed.
Following Amir Khan's silver medal win in Athens, SABA also wants to put the school boxing case directly to Tessa Jowell - "to capitalise on the Khan experience" - emphasising that he started through the SABA championships.
Khan is being used by the SABA to get academic recognition for boxing. Its second appeal against examining board OCR's refusal to grant this was due to be heard this week.
"Amir is studying sports development at Bolton Community College and had hoped to take boxing as his specialist PE subject," said Cdr Robertson.
However, he cannot be examined because boards refuse to include boxing in their list of approved sports for assessment at GCSE and AAS levels.
"Many schools tell us that boxing training and non-contact boxing schemes such as Kid Gloves are the most popular PE activities," he adds. "The missing link is that there is currently no outlet for examination for the enthusiastic pupils."
Dennis Stinchcombe, secretary SABA, Riverside Youth Project, Clement
Street, Easton, Bristol BS2 9ES
Tel: 01179 552866
Cdr R Robertson, chairman SABA
Tel: 01935 891667
Tel: 01984 632537
The BBC Sports Academy has a list of boxing clubs: