Yudai Shigeoka has long dreamed of becoming a world boxing champion, but a decision that could see the sport excluded from the 2020 Olympics might deal his hopes a knockout blow.
The International Olympic Committee said last month it was suspending preparations for boxing at the 2020 Games over governance concerns, leaving Japanese boxers in limbo.
“All of us have been practicing for the Tokyo Olympics,” the 21-year-old told AFP after an evening training session at the Takushoku University gym in Hachioji. “Honestly, it’ll be shocking for boxers if a dream that is right in front of us just disappears.”
The IOC took the decision over concerns about the sport’s troubled amateur governing body, the International Boxing Association (AIBA), which is now under investigation by the IOC.
Thomas Bach, the IOC president, declined to promise that boxing would be part of the 2020 Games, though he pledged at a Tokyo news conference to “make all efforts to protect the athletes, as we always do.”
The Japan Amateur Boxing Federation is taking the issue seriously, with its president warning of “major damage” to the boxing world if the sport is excluded from the 2020 Games.
“The number of boxing athletes could decline because of this,” president Sadanobu Uchida told AFP.
There are currently about 5,000 amateur boxers — mostly men — in Japan.
“Athletes train for years for the Olympics, saying it’s their childhood dream,” Uchida said. “The Olympics is such a special event for them.”
And because boxers often have a shorter career than other athletes, they have fewer chances to qualify for the Olympics, which takes place every four years, he added.
The federation has warned its coaches to pay close attention to the decision’s effect on athletes, fearing they may become demoralised and lose motivation.
They have also collected more than 450,000 signatures on a petition asking the IOC to keep the sport in the Olympics.
“We really hope boxing tournaments will be held. I have faith they will be,” Uchida said.
Boxing has an ancient Olympic tradition and has featured at every modern games since 1904, with the exception of the 1912 Games in Stockholm because Swedish law at the time banned the sport.
“It’ll be sad if boxing is scrapped. It’ll be sad for everyone who does boxing,” said Shigeoka, captain of the university’s team.
As a child he practiced karate, but he switched to boxing when he turned 13 and won national titles four times when he was in high school. Now he practices with 20 other members of the team two hours a day, six days a week. They run, do sit-ups, spar, shadow box and train with sandbags.
Last month, he came in on top at the country’s biggest national championships for amateur boxers.
Masayuki Urashima, a 22-year-old student who trains with Shigeoka, fears his efforts “will be wasted” if boxing is removed from the Tokyo Games.
Many of his fellow fourth-year teammates have quit boxing as they look for a job, but Urashima has decided to continue training, hoping to be selected for the Tokyo Games.
“Competing at the Olympics is what I dream of,” Urashima said. “It’s a good opportunity because it’s going to be held in Tokyo.”
Japanese boxers ought to have a leg-up when it comes to qualifying, because as host nation they are guaranteed seven spots — five for men and two for women. Ordinarily, the number would depend on how Japanese boxers fared in Asian qualifiers. At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, they only secured two spots.
The IOC’s final decision on whether to include boxing in the 2020 program is not expected until next June, and until then Urashima and Shigeoka say they will keep training and hoping.
“Whether or not I’m good enough, I want to do my best until the end,” Urashima said. “I just really want to compete in the Olympics.”