Amir - Sport Keeps Kids off the Streets
And, for those attending any of the projects under the umbrella of StreetGames a national charity hoping to popularise “doorstep sport” for which Khan is an ambassador – it could be any one of thousands of young volunteers.
Amid a fierce ongoing debate about whether the government can deliver on the bold legacy promises made to secure the London Olympics in 2005, Khan believes that it is people rather than policies that will inspire kids to take up sport.
“I was very hyperactive when I was a kid,” explains the 25-year-old at the Gloves community centre. “Just misbehaving at school like most kids, and I would probably be 10 times worse at home. Dad took me to a gym round the corner from where we lived, where I met the trainer [Battel]. It was all about diverting my energy into something positive. I was only eight and I never looked back. It felt like home when I walked into the gym.”
Khan’s gym sits on the outskirts of Bolton town centre next to an Aldi. It’s a long way from the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas where Khan will face Lamont Peterson on 19 May in a rematch granted following a contentious defeat last year. Despite the impressive array of memorabilia on display including signed bats from the Pakistan cricket team and mementos from Khan’s biggest fights, it is far from glossy and hums with purpose.
Khan, who won Olympic silver in Athens at 17 in 2004 and turned professional in 2008, put down £1.1m to set up the gym nearly four years ago. He continues to fund it from his own pocket today and says that more than 200,000 kids have been through its doors. Aspiring boxers pay a pound to train, while classes pass through as part of their school PE curriculum, and a homework club gives them somewhere to work.
“It’s all about keeping the kids off the streets and giving them a bit of discipline. If I hadn’t gone towards boxing I might have been one of those kids getting into trouble. A lot of my friends did,” he adds.
“They were clever kids at school but they just went down the wrong path. Now, they probably look at me as someone who is training hard and working hard and see the difference.” Khan has signed up as an ambassador for StreetGames, which is funded by Lottery money and corporate backers including Coca-Cola, and hopes to expand from 250 “doorstep sports clubs” to more than 1,000 affiliated schemes within the next four years.
In his memorable speech that most agree played a crucial part in swaying the International Olympic Committee, Lord Coe vowed to use the Games to inspire a generation through sport. Since then, sports-participation figures have flatlined and the government has come under fire over school sport cuts. Despite sports minister Hugh Robertson insisting that a new youth sport strategy will bear fruit, there are real fears that the promised link between a UK Olympics and a cultural sea change in the nation’s attitude to sport won’t materialise.
An engaging mix of shyness and cocky confidence as he picks over chicken and chips in the office above the gym, Khan is convinced that schemes such as StreetGames are the answer. Diffident outside it, he comes alive in the ring as he jokes with a group of StreetGames teenagers and leads them through a series of shadow-boxing exercises. With British boxing’s reputation in the gutter and the debate over its future renewed by the brawl between heavyweights Dereck Chisora and David Haye in Munich last month that ended with the former threatening to shoot the latter amid chaotic scenes, Khan is keen to talk up the positive aspects of the sport.
Boxing is back on the school national curriculum and, with women’s boxing admitted to the Olympics in London for the first time, he fears it is in danger of being overshadowed by the fallout from the Munich incident. “Even though you think boxing is a contact sport, it teaches you not to fight on the street, to behave,” says Khan. “It gives you discipline and self-control. I want people to follow in my footsteps, with my gym. In deprived areas, kids can’t afford to go to health clubs or expensive gyms,” he adds – and in his shiny red tracksuit and box-fresh Nikes, he would still not look out of place among them. “I’m honoured that they’ve chosen my gym to come to.”
The close relationship between a boxer and his coach is evidence, says Khan, of the bond of trust that can be built through sport. Ashworth says the same is true of her StreetGames leaders, many of whom have graduated from attending the schemes. “You need to have a very strong relationship with your coaches. For me, Freddie Roach is like a father figure,” he says. “If I’m in trouble, you have that much trust in that person, you listen to him and take in what he says.” Despite an acknowledgement that the pre-fight pantomime of professional boxing sometimes requires him to hype his bouts, Khan says he can never imagine himself engaging in the kind of trash talk others favour, or trading blows outside the ring.
“I’ll always be dead chilled out. Your family help keep your feet on the ground. Boxing has taught me discipline and I’m sure it’s taught other fighters discipline. I’m never going to hit someone outside the boxing ring. If there was trouble, I’d walk away from it.”Khan waxes lyrical about a recent trip to London where he modelled Burberry at London Fashion Week, appeared on Jonathan Ross and met JLS and Tinie Tempah. Recently engaged to New York student Faryal Makhdoom, he also revels in his newfound profile in the US. His box-office appeal has soared in line with the backing afforded him by boxing’s kingmakers – his promoters Golden Boy and cable giant HBO.
But he insists he still feels most at home in Bolton. “My friends say why don’t you buy a Ferrari, buy this or that, or be in music videos. That’s not me. I want to stay undercover and stay low. I’ll be normal, I’ll never change,” he says.
“Since we came back from Athens, life has totally changed. Having a place like this keeps me grounded. You walk in and see kids training – I was in that position a few years ago. I’ve had teachers come up to me and say that since their kids started coming to the gym they’ve started to behave in school.”
Khan’s plan in the ring is to overcome Peterson in a rematch of the fight that become engulfed in controversy amid speculation over the influence of a mystery “man in the hat” over the scoring.
If he wins that, he believes it will set him up to face Floyd Mayweather Jr in the UK in November or December. That fight could elevate him into the top echelon of fighters. Outside the ring, he believes he has already delivered.
“Sport and music are the only two things that can keep kids off the streets. Kids are bored on the streets. Around this area, since we’ve had this boxing gym the crime rate has gone down. It was a really deprived area before – now that’s changing.”