Ukraine’s golden gloves dominate London 2012

Issue 49, September 2012.

Ukraine did not produce any of the major stars of the London 2012 Olympic Games, but nevertheless the nation’s sportsmen and women did manage to finish in a respectable fourteenth position overall, winning a total of twenty medals. The stand-out performers of Ukraine’s London 2012 team were undoubtedly the nation’s Olympic boxers, who won five medals in total – or in other words, 25% of Ukraine’s entire 2012 Olympic medal haul. This impressive display earned Ukraine’s boxing squad a second place finish in the Olympic boxing medals table, marginally behind host nation Great Britain.
Ukraine’s knockout Olympic boxing performance reflects a domestic boxing scene which is benefiting from the growing popularity of the sport at a time when audiences in many Western nations are moving away from traditional boxing and towards cage-fighting and other mixed martial arts fight franchises. This is emphatically not the case in Ukraine, where the phenomenal success of the Klitschko brothers has helped generate both grassroots and commercial interest in the sport. The results where there for all to see at the London Olympics, where a series of strong performances throughout the weight divisions left Ukrainian boxing in a position of unfamiliar and enviable prominence.

Cossack dances and Lomachenko’s double gold

Ukraine’s two boxing gold medals were both won in style. Heavyweight Oleksandr Usyk delighted the London crowd by performing a Cossack dance following his gold medal victory over Italy’s Clemente Russo. The big Ukrainian had already attracted plenty of attention thanks to his distinctive Cossack Mohican hairstyle, and his victory helped inject some excitement into an otherwise under-par heavyweight competition. While Usyk was something of a surprise package for London boxing audiences, Ukraine’s other gold medal winning pugilist went into the competition as one of the hot favourites. Ukrainian lightweight Vasyl Lomachenko travelled to London this summer as the defending Olympic champion, having won his first gold medal in China four years ago. Since Beijing, the Ukrainian fighter has added amateur world titles at both feather and lightweight – a record went ensured that he was widely expected to retain his Olympic title in London. Lomachenko did not disappoint, coasting through the early rounds before dispatching his utterly outclassed South Korean opponent Han Soon-chul in a one-sided final.
Ukrainian Olympic champs prepare to go pro Lomachenko’s second Olympic triumph is likely to serve as the next stepping stone in his highly successful career. In the wake of the London Olympics he announced plans turn professional with the world amateur boxing governing body AIBA’s pro boxing venture APB, which is scheduled to get underway in a novel league format in 2013. Fellow Ukrainian Olympic gold medalist Usyk is also penciled in to join Lomachenko in the fledgling AIBA pro stable, alongside three other members of Ukraine’s all-conquering London 2012 Olympic boxing team. Maintaining links with the amateur sport would enable Lomachenko to remain eligible for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he could attempt to claim an unprecedented third straight gold medal. However, the Ukrainian fighter has been inundated with offers to turn professional and so it is likely to be some time before the fighter’s next moves are confirmed.

The Klitschko factor: how boxing became Ukraine’s national sport

Ukrainian heavyweight world champ Vladimir Klitschko was ringside for Lomachenko’s gold medal victory performance in London and after the bout he echoed the desire of many fight fans to see the talented Ukrainian take on the best of the sport’s professional ranks. “I’m really proud of my fellow countryman Lomachenko – it is no ordinary thing to win a gold medal at two consecutive Olympics. It would be really exciting to see him in the professional ring,” the younger of the Klitschko brothers commented.
Although he would likely be too modest to say so, Vladimir himself has done much to make success stories like Lomachenko’s double Olympic victory possible. In the rough and ready world of 1990s post-Soviet Ukraine contact sports such as boxing enjoyed considerable street-level popularity, but it has been the exploits of the two Klitschko brothers which have earned boxing genuine mainstream popularity and made it something akin to an unofficial national sport. For over a decade Vladimir and Vitaliy Klitschko have dominated the global heavyweight division like a pair of ancient colossuses. They have defeated opponents with such impunity that critics have accused them of killing off public interest in heavyweight boxing itself. While American fight fans have struggled to warm to the two towering East European champions, Ukrainian audiences have been enthralled every step of the way. This enthusiasm for the Klitschko brothers has produced a generation of fight fans and opened the door for hundreds of young Ukrainian hopefuls.

Americans fall out of love with boxing

The Klitschkos cannot be blamed for failing to win over American audiences, nor can they be held responsible for the poor quality of the heavyweight boxers produced by the US over the past decade. In reality American boxing appears to be in something of a rut which is large part of its own making. Team America finished well down the boxing medals table at the London Olympics – a result which reflected the relatively lowly status of the sport in the US today. If anyone is to blame for the decline of American boxing, it would have to be the competing governing bodies whose endless alphabet titles have done so much to dilute the magic of the sport and erode the credibility of the entire championship bout system. Perhaps even more important than this has been the rise of alternative fighting sports such as mixed martial arts and cage fighting, which have both experienced explosive growth in popularity over the past decade. This shift in audience interests towards alternative fight scenes has been most evident in America. Ukraine also has its fair share of MMA and kickboxing champions (Vladimir Klitschko himself was once a kickboxing world champ), but for the time being the Ukrainian love affair with boxing looks set to continue – boosted by a quite remarkable performance by the nation’s boxing team at the London Olympics.

Ukraine’s London 2012 heroes

Ukraine’s 20 medals at the London 2012 Olympics was actually the lowest total the country has ever recorded since it first began competing at the Olympics as an independence nation in 1996. Nevertheless, there were enough triumphs in London to satisfy both Ukraine’s Olympic fans and the nation’s sports administrators. The Olympic success of Ukraine’s boxers grabbed the headlines in London, but there were also medal-winning performances in a dizzying array of sporting disciplines. Ukrainians claimed medals in everything from weightlifting and wrestling to rowing and canoeing. Lviv’s Yana Shemyakina (pictured, above) was one of the undoubted stars of the country’s 2012 Olympic team, claiming a rare fencing gold for Ukraine. The West Ukrainian had not been tipped prior to London 2012 as a potential medal prospect, but she delighted Ukrainian audiences by winning the country’s first gold medal of the Games on the third day of the London Olympics. There were to be no track athletics golds for Ukraine at this Olympic Games, but there were nevertheless medal-winning performances to cheer from javelin silver medalist Oleksandr Pyatnytsya, triple jump bronze medalist Olha Saladukha (pictured, below) and the Ukrainian women’s four by one hundred metres relay team, which also scored a bronze medal finish.