David Owen ©ITG

I wonder how many International Olympic Committee (IOC) members have lived in a cave at any point in their lives.

Ching-kuo Wu, President of the International Boxing Association (AIBA) and IOC member from Taiwan, had this dubious privilege as a young national service lieutenant. “In fact, it was quite comfortable,” he observes. “Quite warm in winter; quite cool in summer: natural air conditioning.”

To be fair, creature comforts would have been well down Wu’s list of priorities at the time – around 1970. China and Taiwan were at war and the location of the cave – Kinmen island – was close to the Chinese mainland.

An article in The Times of London, published in December 1969, describes Kinmen as “the most heavily shelled island in the annals of war”. Think about that.

The 23 year-old architecture graduate saw his share of the carnage wreaked by these projectiles. “When the shell comes, if you don’t hide quickly enough – boom, it explodes,” he tells me. “I saw a person in front of me, it cut his right arm and the blood came out like a fountain. He fell down, but he didn’t realise he’d lost his arm. He couldn’t stand up because he couldn’t push himself up…I witnessed this.”

Another detail from Wu’s memory underlines the regimented insanity war can bring. “There was an agreement – we shell them on even days; they shell back on odd days,” he says. “After 5 o’clock everybody had to find a place to hide. Their shells started at exactly five o’clock.”

AIBA President C K Wu has introduced a stream of initiatives since taking the post
AIBA President C K Wu has introduced a stream of initiatives since taking the post ©AIBA

At least the sports movement eventually got something positive out of this lethal tit-for-tat: Xiamen, the closest Chinese city, is where Wu built his first Olympic Museum.

These are busy times for the former cave-dweller, now almost 69. This week sees the start of the 2015 AIBA World Boxing Championships in Doha, the first to be staged in the Middle East, with 23 Rio 2016 Olympic quota places at stake.

Many of Wu’s energies since his election to the AIBA Presidency in 2006 have, however, been devoted to broadening the organisation’s influence and presence beyond the Olympics.

We are meeting in the north German port-city of Hamburg, which may host the next AIBA World Championships in 2017. The city, also one of five candidates for the 2024 Olympics and Paralympics, is up against Sochi and Tashkent, I gather, with the winner set to be chosen soon.

But Wu is in town for two 12-round world title fights, under the new AIBA Pro Boxing (APB) banner, which we have just attended.

Part of the point of APB is to enable top boxers to earn a good living without losing their Olympic eligibility. One of the victors that night, German light-welterweight Artem Harutyunyan, actually mentions his goal of winning Olympic gold in the ring afterwards.

Wu’s Presidency has also seen the launch of the World Series of Boxing (WSB) team boxing competition, as well as the introduction of women’s boxing at the Olympics. This was one of the stories of London 2012, thanks in good measure to the efforts of Nicola Adams and Katie Taylor, gold medal winners from Great Britain and Ireland respectively.

So copious has been the stream of innovations since he took over the top post, that it comes as a surprise to learn that there was an element of chance in the way that Wu – who was born in Chongqing but moved to Taiwan, via Nanjing, while still an infant – became involved in boxing.

A more than useful basketball player, in spite of being a lot less than eight feet tall – he says he played guard and had an aptitude for three-point shots – Wu was summoned back to Taiwan by the Prime Minister from a $1billion (£659 million/€892 million) project in Saudi Arabia to be informed that it had been decided he was to be made a candidate for IOC membership.

Since the position was obviously in the IOC’s gift, the young, 30-something architect would first have to build his reputation in the sporting world. He recalls that the Chinese Taipei Boxing Federation needed someone to represent it at the 1982 AIBA Congress in Colorado Springs. He was elected immediately onto the Executive Committee.

The still highly delicate China-Taiwan situation provided him with an opportunity to make a mark across a wider range of sports.

Wu oversaw the debut of women's boxing at London 2012, when the likes of Ireland's Katie Taylor claimed gold
Wu oversaw the debut of women's boxing at London 2012, when the likes of Ireland's Katie Taylor claimed gold ©Getty Images

As Wu explains the position, a string of International Sports Federations (IFs) had “admitted China and replaced Taiwan. Taiwan lost all these memberships. If we had fallen to fewer than five IF memberships, we would have lost IOC recognition. So that was a critical moment.

“I had to have all these negotiations with the IFs…I visited many Congresses. I recovered about 14 international memberships. [Then IOC President Juan Antonio] Samaranch was impressed.”

In 1987, Wu says, Samaranch visited China and “convinced the Chinese Government not to object to my candidature”. The following year, he was elected an IOC member at the IOC Session in Calgary, host of the 1988 Winter Games.

The AIBA President, clearly, is the type of individual who remembers good turns. After Samaranch’s death, in 2010, he built his memorial in the Chinese city of Tianjin. He says he used water as his “design theme” for the museum. “We Chinese say that when you drink water you must always remember who gave you the water,” he explains.

That huge Saudi Arabian project in the desert outside Riyadh came towards the end of a long spell when Wu mainly lived abroad in the UK, Saudi Arabia itself and, briefly, Singapore. During this period, he had a hand in the fabled shopping centre in the English new town of Milton Keynes and, having married after completing his national service, became the father of two daughters, one born in Oxford, the other in Liverpool. For a time he was the owner of a quintessential English car, a Morris Minor Countryman.

Wu is perhaps the only international sports leader whose entrée into the field of sports diplomacy came as a result of playing for a basketball team in Milton Keynes.

He tells the story of how his father, a general under Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist leader, and then a member of the Taiwanese Government, came to watch the team play, commenting, “Huh, your team is not too bad”. He then asked his son to bring the team to play in a Cup in Taiwan, which he duly did.

“That was the first sports exchange programme between Taiwan and England,” Wu recounts, adding: “All the people in Taiwan were very excited to see an English team led by a young Chinese.” This led to the country’s National Olympic Committee (NOC) President asking Wu to be their adviser in Europe. “That was how my involvement in international sport started.”

When Wu entered the international boxing world at that meeting in Colorado Springs, Anwar Chowdhry was already AIBA’s secretary general. Four years later, the controversial Pakistani administrator, who died in 2010, became President, a role he would hold for 20 years.

Wu, who had served as chair of three AIBA Commissions, Youth, Finance and Business Development, first decided to run against Chowdhry in 1998, when he says his rival was at his most powerful. He takes up the story:

“I said to Samaranch, ‘I know it’s not easy, but I have decided to run. At least somebody is challenging Chowdhry to wake him up.’

“I asked Samaranch to help. He said, ‘You know the reason I have to keep myself neutral. But I wish you success. The only thing I ask you is after the election could you call me immediately to let me know the result.’

“Chowdhry estimated I could only get 12 votes, from Western Europe…I gave my speech at Congress saying it was time for change. I got 39 votes; Chowdhry 79.

“I made the phone call to Samaranch and told him the result. Samaranch immediately said, ‘You won the election.’ I said, ‘President, I didn’t win, but at least I let Chowdhry know he could be defeated - one day.”

Former IOC President Jacques Rogge asked Wu to wait until 2006 to run for the AIBA Presidency for a second time
Former IOC President Jacques Rogge asked Wu to wait until 2006 to run for the AIBA Presidency for a second time ©Getty Images

By the time of the next scheduled election in 2002, Jacques Rogge had succeeded Samaranch as IOC President. Wu considered another tilt, but says Rogge asked him to wait, suggesting that in another four years, he could win.

In 2006, his mind made up, Wu went to Rogge again. “He said, ‘Ok, you have to run, and not only run, you have to win. If you lose, boxing will be out of the Olympic programme.’”

He outlines his campaigning tactics: “I started in the Caribbean. They had more than 20 federations. I wanted to hopefully get their support, make them my foundation...

“Then Oceania, not many members, but still important. I got full support from them and the Caribbean, majority support from Africa. Asia belonged to Chowdhry. I couldn’t get a very significant vote.”

It was the closest of close calls, but he made it. The final outcome: Wu 83 votes, Chowdhry 79. And thus began the current era of rapid change.

It is past 1am. We close on one or two more topical subjects: for example, can APB realistically generate enough income to prevent the very best boxers continuing to defect to other forms of professional boxing in pursuit of the big bucks, often after catching promoters’ eyes at the Olympics?

While confident, Wu concedes that it will take time. The AIBA President has abundant reserves of both patience and determination, however. Earlier, he had told me that having taken up boxing at the age of 13, when knocked to the canvas by an opponent, “I would be on the floor thinking ‘I must stand up, I must stand up.’”

In less than 10 years, he predicts, “I think we can see a big [APB] fight will come up that all television wants to televise”.

We bid each other good night. I head back to my hotel.