Reloaded Cuban boxing team points toward London

Aug. 24, 2008, 7:20 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The Cuban boxing team traveled to China with no Olympic gold medalists for the first time in a generation, and it's heading home the same way.

Yet the Cubans have plenty of reason to be thrilled after winning eight medals - albeit no golds - in a rebuilding year for amateur boxing's once-and-future dominant power.

Carlos Banteaux had Cuba's last chance at a gold medal in Beijing on Sunday, and he handled it just like the Olympic rookie he is. The welterweight had been Cuba's most impressive fighter in Beijing, but he got bullied and bruised in an 18-9 loss to Bakhyt Sarsekbayev of Kazakhstan.

Still, Banteaux emerged with a lesson in international fighting that he wouldn't have received if four of Cuba's five gold-medal winners in Athens - along with world champion welterweight Erislandy Lara - hadn't defected or been kicked off the team for trying.

"This is a completely rebuilt team," Banteaux said. "The main boxers we had in the past couldn't participate, and we had to fill in for them. But this result makes us very happy, and eight medals for the team makes me very proud."

Still, Cuba had won a boxing gold medal in every Olympics since 1968 - except 1984 and 1988, because of boycotts. The Cubans claimed 20 golds in the previous four Olympics, including every heavyweight title, and 30 total medals - 11 more than second-place Russia.

Cuba widened that lead in overall medals after Russia flopped in a three-medal performance, but Russia closed the gold gap with titles for heavyweight Rakhim Chakhkiev and lightweight Alexey Tishchenko.

While the disappointment was obvious on Banteaux's face, the Cuban boxers and their coaches emphasized the importance of tough international experience for fighters who can never aspire to anything bigger than Olympic gold if they stay on their island.

Bantamweight Yankiel Leon also lost his gold-medal bout Sunday after teammates Andris Laffita and Emilio Correa settled for silver on Saturday. Four Cubans lost semifinal bouts to win bronze medals, and only two Cubans failed to make the medal rounds.

"Our people have to recognize the fact that these guys are a cycle ahead," Cuba coach Pedro Roque said. "They came here with no experience, and they've won eight medals. No gold, I know, but nobody was expecting more than one or two medals at all for us. Now we have not only eight medals, but also a team with Olympic experience, ready to start preparing for the next Olympics."

The first vacancy on that powerful Athens team opened when two-time Olympic champion Mario Kindelan retired. In December 2006, gold medalists Odlanier Solis, Yan Barthelemy and Yuriorkis Gamboa all defected during a training session in Venezuela.

The following year, Lara and two-time Olympic champion Guillermo Rigondeaux were kicked off the team after getting caught trying to defect in Brazil. Lara finally was successful a few months ago.

That turnover opened several spots on the national team, which didn't travel to the world championships in Chicago last fall because it feared more defections.

When the Cuban replacements plowed through Olympic qualifying tournaments, they emerged as a factor in Beijing - but nobody knew how the inexperienced boxers would perform. Some, like flyweight Laffita, are already 30, while others are barely out of their teens.

Cuba will be back on the international circuit in the fall, further developing its roster before next year's world championships in Milan, Italy. With four more years of experience - and barring any further defections - Cuba expects to be ready to reclaim that top spot on the medal podium.

"We will need more time to develop," Banteaux said. "The team will be stronger for the next Olympics, I believe. We will make the necessary steps. We will probably have more (international) fights, more time for training, and it will give us more experience in the ring."