IT was announced on last week that due to the pandemic overseas spectators will not be permitted to attend the Olympic Games later this year. It’s a blow for the athletes, whose friends, families and supporters won’t be able to watch live. But for the boxers the most important thing is performing and winning medals. ““The goal still remains the same,” light-heavyweight Ben Whittaker says.

The reshuffle of the Olympic qualification process has affected different boxers in different ways. Sandy Ryan has been one of its victims. But replacing the final qualifier with instead allocating Olympic quota places based on world rankings does benefit Whittaker. After medalling at the World championships and European Games in 2019 he is highly rated and should be all but assured of a place at the Tokyo Games, even were he not to qualify through the European event in June.

“I want to go there and rubberstamp my name as European gold medallist because you get a better placing in the Olympics then, so there’s a benefit from it,” Ben notes. Most importantly Whittaker needs to get bouts in. The pandemic shutdown prevented him from boxing for the entirety of 2020. “Luckily enough I’m a kid who does always tick over. The coaches have tried their best, they’ve took us to places like Ireland to still get competitive gym bouts,” he said. “I think we’ve been in the ring so many times, we’re fit enough to just get on with it. It’s nice to get a few bouts in but I think we’re more than experienced enough to know what the ring’s like now truthfully. Apparently we’ve got a tournament next month in Serbia. All the number ones, the Olympic team, we go there, that’ll be perfect to get ready for Paris.

“I need to get back into the atmosphere, putting on your boots, warming up because all of that does build up to a bit of nerves and things like that. In 2019 and ‘18 I was consistently out so I was just used to it, it was just like going to the gym. It feels a bit daunting now I haven’t done it for a good while but I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Ben Whittaker
Whittaker impresses at the 2019 European Games. Photo: Lumix/Team GB

It’s hard for British boxers to get a bout in, even though athletes on the Olympic programme are allowed to train in the UK and smaller tournaments are taking place in Europe. But the Covid situation in Britain has made it difficult UK boxers to enter international events. The main thing for Olympic hopefuls will be to have some contests in order to sharpen up before Tokyo and the qualifier. “You’ve got to get your eye in because sparring and things like that is great but it’s nothing like a bout,” Ben said. “When there’s a stake at the end of it, a winner and a loser, they come out swinging at you. It changes the energy of a bout. So we’ve just got to get back in there hopefully as fast as we can and get the ball rolling but it has been a bit of a crazy situation.”

Whittaker is young, still only 23 years old, gifted and as a light-heavyweight he is in an exciting division. He would make a hugely appealing signing for any professional promoter. But he resisted any temptation to turn over before the Olympic Games. “But why come this far only to throw it away now,” he reflected. “I’ve put myself in a great position now, World medallist, European Games medallist, all I need now to put on my tally is that Olympic medal. I just need to give it a shot.

“It would be great to get a bit of money, turning pro, but looking back and maybe seeing people I beat on the podium would have been a bit upsetting.

“I’m still learning. The Olympics getting set back another year, it’s upsetting but I’ve had another year to build properly into the weight because even though I’m six foot three and tall at the weight, there’s a lot more building to get there. So I think come the Olympics I’ll be a different boxer. So it’s been a great time to just work on things like strength, building up a bit more into the weight. You have to take the positives from it and that’s what I’ve been doing.”