NEWS
07/14/2016 14:22 EDT | Updated 07/15/2017 01:12 EDT

Smaller than expected Canadian boxing team has big Olympic medal hopes

MONTREAL — Any disappointment in having only three Canadian boxers at the 2016 Olympics is offset by the fact that Arthur Biyarslanov, Mandy Bujold and Ariane Fortin are all medal contenders.

That's how head coach Daniel Trepanier sees it, anyway.

"Right now, with the support of the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own The Podium, it's getting better each year and we see our program evolving," Trepanier said Thursday at the team's training base, the East Boxing Club. "We had good results at the 2012 Olympics, but when we got there our athletes were not contenders.

"Four years later, we're going with the same number, but we've got three contenders for medals. We're not only looking at the number, it's the quality that we develop and bring to the Olympics. For us, it's more important to have one boxer who brings back a medal than having 13 that won't win anything. In the end, it's medals that bring you funding."

Trepanier is confident Canada can win in Rio de Janeiro. All are ranked in among the top 10 amateurs in the world in their weight classes.

Bujold, of Kitchener, Ont., may be the best bet. The 28-year-old won gold at the 2011 Pan Am Games and then defended the title at the 2015 Pan Ams in Toronto, defeating world champion Marla Esparza of the United States in the final.

The 21-year-old Biyaslanov, of Toronto, was also a Pan Am Games gold medallist last summer, while 31-year-old Fortin, of St. Redempteur, Que., won bronze in Toronto.

Canada has not won an Olympic boxing medal since David Defiagbon of Halifax took silver in 1996 in Atlanta and the team is tiny compared to the heyday of the 1980s, when Lennox Lewis won superheavyweight gold in Seoul.

They hoped to send up to five boxers to Rio, but qualifying is much tougher this time. For one, the International Amateur Boxing Association handed over 30 spots in the tournament to professional fighters for the first time.

It had already been made much harder to get in when the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991, creating strong boxing countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to compete for places.

"It's always a challenge for an association like ours with limited funding to compete with countries where boxing is their only sport and they put all their money into it," said Trepanier.

At the 2012 Games in London, Custio Clayton of Dartmouth, N.S., came within a point of a medal, while Mary Spencer of Windsor, Ont., and Simon Kean of Trois-Rivieres, Que., each finished tied for fifth. In 2008 in Beijing Canada only had one entry, Adam Turpish of London, Ont., who lost his first match.

This time, the three that made it were the ones considered favourites to get an Olympic berth. There were high hopes for Pan Am gold medallist Caroline Veyre, but the Montreal fighter fell just short.

"Since they put women's boxing in the Olympics (in 2012), we're starting to travel more together and it created a really good energy," said Fortin. "Between me, Mandy and Arthur, it will be positive for sure. We all support each other."

The team will have a final training camp in Montreal starting July 25, then head to Rio on Aug. 2.

"My goal is to win a gold medal for Canada," said Biyarslanov, a light welterweight. "The last one was many years ago.

"Of course I have a lot of pressure. I'm more nervous every day leading up to the Olympics, but that's normal."