Nancy Gillen

It was a long journey to Fiji - the 28-hour extravaganza from London, which featured a stopover in Los Angeles, highlighted the remoteness of the island.

The reason for the trip was the International Boxing Association’s (AIBA) second Continental Forum. The first took place in Panama last month, before 16 National Federations of the Oceania Boxing Confederation (OCBC) met this weekend on the picturesque Natadola Bay.

Forums such as these have not been held by AIBA before. The organisation’s descent into chaos has been well-documented and reached a climax when AIBA was stripped of its Olympic status last June.  

Its future remains precarious due to a large amount of debt and uncertain leadership, with Mohamed Moustahsane currently acting as Interim President after the resignation of Uzbekistan's Gafur Rakhimov.

AIBA is now working towards regaining Olympic recognition, with the Forums one such way of doing this. Devised by Marketing Commission chair Umar Kremlev, it is hoped the meetings will open up a new dialogue between AIBA, Confederations and National Federations.

Having attended the two Forums to have taken place so far, it has been interesting to see the same issue emerge at both.

In Panama, Kremlev revealed that smaller countries had detailed their struggle to get to international competitions due to logistical and financial constraints.

"Small countries have the problem of not being able to travel a lot to different international competitions," he said.

"So, we need to make a plan about how to make this happen for them. After today's meeting, we will work to help them."

AIBA's second Continental Forum was held here in Fiji ©AIBA
AIBA's second Continental Forum was held here in Fiji ©AIBA

The Americas do indeed include several smaller countries such as Aruba, Barbados and the Bahamas, who are completely dwarfed by the boxing heavyweights of the United States and Cuba. Some of the countries are small islands and lack the finances and resources to funnel into boxing.

The situation is even more difficult in Oceania. Australia and New Zealand are the two biggest countries, and despite large populations and numerous resources, are still relatively remote from the rest of the world.

And then there are the Pacific Islands. As the journey here suggested, Fiji is hard to get to, never mind nations such as Samoa, Tonga or Vanuatu.

The 16 National Federations comprising OCBC are all literally faraway, but it was revealed here they also feel distant from the top level of boxing.

“We feel that we are part of the five Olympic rings, but I think that over the years, the fifth one, Oceania, has been neglected,” said Fiji Amateur Boxing Association President Manasa Baravilala during his opening remarks at today’s Forum.

He included a number of requests to AIBA in his speech to change this feeling of neglect. These included a separate Olympic qualifying event for Oceania, annual OCBC Boxing Championships and an Oceania Boxing Centre based in Fiji.

A combined Olympic qualifying event for Oceania and Asia has only been in place since the Rio 2016 preamble, but during that competition, it was clear to see how easily Asia dominated the boxers from Oceania.

Australia was the only Oceanian country to see boxers progress to Rio 2016 from that event - a grand total of three. Asian athletes claimed the remaining 33 Olympic places.

There was a separate qualifying contest for Oceania for London 2012. A gulf was revealed there, however, between Australia and New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Australia took all nine quota places for the men’s competition, while two New Zealand boxers and one Australian qualified for the women’s contest.

Fiji Amateur Boxing Association President Manasa Baravilala claimed that Oceania has been
Fiji Amateur Boxing Association President Manasa Baravilala claimed that Oceania has been "neglected" by AIBA ©AIBA

Baravilala conceded this disparity himself, with his suggestions to AIBA also intended to aid the development of boxing in the Pacific Islands.  

"For us in the Pacific, there is a big gap between us and Australia and New Zealand,” he said.

"We need the OCBC Boxing Championships to bring us closer together. It is not enough for us to go to the Pacific Games, we need something more than that to be able to compete at an Olympic level."

It seemed Moustahsane was in agreement with Baravilala’s proposals, especially regarding Olympic qualification.

“I think it is a good idea,” the Interim President said.

“I support this idea to have five Olympic qualifiers for the five continents. At the Olympic Games, we need representation for all continents.

“It’s fair to not have the same quota of boxers qualifying, but we still need to secure a quota for each continent.”

If the new Continental Forums have done anything, they have allowed members of small National Federations to air their grievances directly to the current AIBA leadership.

Both here and in Panama, it has been made clear that smaller countries struggle to attend international competitions, leaving them floundering behind more affluent nations. In Oceania in particular, the lack of a consistent continental competition and a separate Olympic pathway has left countries feeling anonymous. 

Representatives such as Baravilala have been given the platform to raise these issues with AIBA, and speaking to the organisation's leadership afterwards, it does seem as if these are being taken on board. 

Shelley Watts of Australia was one of three boxers from Oceania to reach the Rio 2016 Olympic Games from a combined Oceania and Asia qualifying event ©Getty Images
Shelley Watts of Australia was one of three boxers from Oceania to reach the Rio 2016 Olympic Games from a combined Oceania and Asia qualifying event ©Getty Images

No matter how hard AIBA tries, however, the crux of the matter may always lie with regaining Olympic status. For example, for AIBA to have any kind of input into the Olympic qualification process and create five separate continental events, the organisation must of course be reinstated by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 

Another example. Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC) President Robin Mitchell, also Acting Association of Nationl Olympic Committees President, was on hand today to give a presentation on the ONOC education programme.  It has already helped develop sports such as hockey and rugby in Oceania, using a model based on the IOC's Olympic Solidarity fund.  

Such a programme could be essential for smaller nations looking to get a grip on the top level of boxing, but it was pertinently pointed out that National Federations are currently unable to receive IOC funding due to AIBA's current Olympic status. Subsequently, the development of boxing in small countries is stunted.

As such, the Continental Forums are proving to be a useful soap box for those who do not normally have their voice heard, but the effectiveness of the meetings is going to be limited by the lack of Olympic recognition. 

It is Europe's turn next week. The Italian city of Assisi is playing host on February 29. In contrast to the meetings here and in Panama, the majority of European countries are well-resourced and experienced in the world of boxing. 

Due to this, the Forum will be of a very different nature, but each National Federation will no doubt still have issues of its own. Again, AIBA will have to show it is willing to listen and consider as it continues to campaign for IOC reinstatement.