KAMPALA. The Africa Olympics Qualifiers are underway in Yaounde, Cameroon. A maximum of 30 slots are up for grabs because the top three boxers in each of the 10 weight categories will earn a ticket to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics.
Unlike before, when Africa had two such qualifier tournaments, in addition to the All-Africa Games, today the continental qualifier is only one edition, though boxers can use alternative routes like Aiba Pro Boxing (APB); World Series of Boxing (WSB) and the World Boxing Championships.
At the peak of administrative bickering, Uganda missed out on the London 2012 edition. In Beijing 2008, only light fly Ronald Sserugo represented the Bombers.
Sam Rukundo, alias Isaac Ssentamu, is a 2004 Athens Olympian, who went through both continental qualifier campaigns in Casablanca, Morocco and Gaborone, Botswana.
SCORE engaged him as we look back at a campaign through which five Bombers progressed to the Athens Olympics in Greece. In this tournament, held January 15-22, only the finalists advanced.
Rukundo lost his semi-final bout to Moroccan Tahar Tamsamani but till this day he says he was a victim of biased officiating by the North Africans.
“Everyone in the arena saw that I was the better boxer but the Moroccan was declared the winner,” he laments. But justice prevailed in Athens when the two faced off again and Rukundo got his sweet revenge.
“He (Tamsamani) ‘stole’ my victory in Morocco but when I eventually qualified from Botswana, he was my first opponent in the preliminaries and I beat him convincingly, moreover on points,” Rukundo recalls with a smirk.
Light fly Jolly Katongole (RIP)
He, alongside Atanus Mugerwa, were the youngest and most talented. Katongole had narrowly lost to ‘awkward’ Ethiopian Endalkachew Kebede in the semifinals of the 2003 All-Africa Games in Abuja, Nigeria, settling for bronze.
In Casablanca, Katongole came all guns blazing. In the final, the 18 year-old won gold and booked a ticket to Athens Olympics, when he defeated Moroccan Redouane Bouchtouk.
Rukundo recalls the moment by simply saying, “We were all good but the boy (Katongole) was just classic.”
Featherweight Brian Mayanja
Little is known about him because he has virtually vanished from the boxing scene. But he was one of the first three who qualified from Casablanca. He got silver and a ticket to Athens Olympics after losing to Tunisian featherweight Saifeddine Nejmaoui in the final.
Rukundo says Mayanja put up a spirited challenge though defeating a North African in North Africa was quite a task.
Middleweight Joseph Lubega
When he still had the power and reflexes characteristic of young fighters, Lubega was one of Uganda’s medal hopefuls. He won silver at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games and, here, he did not disappoint. Losing the final to South African Khostso Motau, he got another silver medal and a ticket to the Athens Olympics.
His professional light heavyweight career has yielded two major titles: an Africa Boxing Union (ABU) title and a World Boxing Council-International (WBC-I). But that pales much in comparison with the likes of fellow Athens Olympian, Amir Khan of Britain, a two-time former world champion.
Bantamweight Atanus Mugerwa
He got to Morocco as a wildcard entry. Unfortunately, despite a spirited display, he lost to Egyptian Mohamed Abdelsayed thus failing to qualify.
It’s the closest he has ever come to the prestigious tournament because the 2008 edition found him serving an indefinite ban, while in 2012 he had staged base in Sweden with Ronald Sserugo. He is one of the Bombers currently in Yaoundé. Can he finally live the Olympics dream? The ball is in his court.
Flyweight Martin Mubiru lost at the semifinal stage and failed to qualify. Likewise, light welter Anderman Daku and welterweight Sadat Tebazalwa did not progress.
But later in March 15-22, the Bombers had second chance at the Second Aiba African 2004 Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Gaborone, Botswana. Like in Casablanca, only the top two advanced. Out of a team of five, two Bombers progressed.
Lightweight Sam Rukundo:
He opines this was a tougher and fairer tournament because ‘everybody knew this was the last chance’. He secured his ticket to Athens by reaching the final. He lost to Michael Medor of Mauritius to set up a revenge date with Moroccan Tamsamani at the Olympics.
Welterweight Sadat Tebazaalwa
He followed in his brother Abdu Tebazalwa’s footsteps by winning gold in the welterweight category by defeating Zambian Ellis Chibuye in the final.
The elder Tebazalwa, a 2000 Sydney Olympian, says Sadat’s qualification was a surprise to many, little wonder he only had two fights as a professional in Japan and retired into other jobs.
Flyweight Martin Mubiru
He was second time unlucky when he again failed the semi-final hurdle. He did not make it to Athens but managed to console himself with a bronze at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
He had a futile pro career in Japan. He is currently in Germany but nothing much can really redeem what was an otherwise a promising career. Tony Ssekabira the other squad member was also unsuccessful.
Poor show in Athens
Everyone had earned his slot on coach Dick Katende’s Olympic team and was ready to defend it but in Athens, four lost instantly with only Rukundo making the quarterfinals. He blames it on ill preparation.
“You see, when we qualified we entered camp that was fully-sponsored by Michael Ezra, he gave each of us Shs500,000 as monthly allowance; at Munyonyo, we slept like kings,” Rukundo recounts.
From Kampala, Ezra took the team to Kabale and Rukundo retells the good life with an evident smile. “He had even pledged that whoever won a medal in Athens would get a fully-furnished house, my friend we were determined.” So what went wrong?
For reasons still unknown, Ezra was forced to distance himself from the Bombers’ Olympics build-up and quickly, frustration replaced splendour.
“The boys lost concentration. We reverted to our usual life of poor feeding and no allowances. We lost morale,” Rukundo regrets. “At least I had some money to take care of my family, but others only depended on the allowances otherwise, life was a mess.” Isn’t this the same old story of Ugandan sport?
HOW THEY PERFORMED IN GREECE
*Sam Rukundo lost to Russian Murat Khrachev (quarterfinals)
*Jolly Katongole lost to Hungarian Pál Bedák (1st preliminaries)
*Brian Mayanja lost to Kazakhstan’s Galib Jafarov RSC (1st preliminaries)
Sadat Tebazaalwa lost to Chinese Hanati Silamu (1st preliminaries)
Joseph Lubega lost to Thailand’s Suriya Prasathinphimai (1st preliminaries)