( Times ) - For years, Great Britain's amateur boxers have been the poor relations not only of the professional code but of the rest of the world. The silver medal won at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games by Amir Khan ushered in a new era of funding for the amateur sport and the improvement has been dramatic.
The number of boxers who have qualified for Beijing reached six yesterday, more than the total at the past three Olympics combined, while a further two box for their places today. With one qualifying tournament to go, there is a possibility that Britain will send a full team of 11 to China.
"The days of hit and hope are gone," Keith Walters, the chairman of the ABA of England, said. "We are now up there with the likes of Russia, Cuba and China and ahead of the United States. We always had the talent and knowledge, but we never had the funding. So kids would turn pro too early without getting the chance to compete on the big stage as an amateur. There has been a lot of coach education as well, so now we are getting kids coming in to the national team already boxing like internationals."
Khalid Yafai, a flyweight, and James DeGale, a middleweight, became the latest British boxers to qualify, joining Frankie Gavin, the lightweight world champion, Tony Jeffries, Bradley Saunders and Joe Murray, who all qualified at the World Championships in Chicago last year.
The success of Yafai was particularly impressive. At 18, he was seen as a hope for the London Games in 2012, but his chance came four years early after he beat Igor Samoilenko, of Moldova, 13-11 on points.
"A year ago I was looking towards London," Yafai said. "But I'd seen Amir Khan do it when he was even younger so that gave me the encouragement. I'm proud to have qualified but I won't be happy with just going there for a holiday. My aim now is to follow Amir and get a medal."
Stephen Smith, the featherweight, and Billy Joe Saunders, the welterweight, lost yesterday but will qualify if they win a third-place box-off today. But there will be no box-off for Danny Price, the heavyweight, who lost 15-6 to Aleksandr Usik, of Ukraine.
Things could have been even better had David Price, the 6ft 8in super-heavyweight, not been the victim of one of the sort of miscarriages of justice that have dogged international amateur boxing for years.
Price was beaten 19-17 by David Arshba, of Azerbaijan, despite being ahead on three and level on one of the five scorecards. What appeared to make it worse was that Arshba should have received a two-point penalty. England lodged an appeal but lost.
Things became farcical when Arshba was then thrown out of the tournament when it was revealed that he had boxed for Russia and was not qualified to represent Azerbaijan. Rather than reinstate Price, the organisers drew lots for the three boxers beaten by Arshba, but the draw was won by Robert Helenius, of Finland.
"The Azerbaijan boxer beat the Finn easy," Price said. "Then he outclassed the Greek. Those weren't even close. But I beat him. To even think about putting one of those two back in at my expense is a farce."
It was a particular blow for Price, who had won all his three contests at the World Championships, only to be forced to pull out with a broken hand ahead of his quarter-final.
The two Prices, Paul Butler, the light-flyweight, plus Smith and Saunders, should they lose today, will have one more opportunity to qualify at a tournament in Athens in April.