Ben Whittaker joining Mark Lewis-Francis as Darlaston Olympic royalty

Olympic hopeful Ben Whittaker is aiming to emulate Mark Lewis-Francis by putting Darlaston on the sporting map this summer.

Ben Whittaker
Ben Whittaker

Sprinter Lewis-Francis, nicknamed the Darlaston Dart, famously won gold as part of Britain’s 4x100 metre relay team at Athens 2004.

Whittaker is pretty quick on his feet too, albeit he plans to do most of the talking with his fists.

The 24-year-old light-heavyweight is considered among the best medal contenders in the GB boxing squad for the Tokyo Games, which begin on July 23.

“There aren’t many people from Darlaston who can say they are an Olympian,” said Whittaker. “It’s a small place. Step one way you are in Wednesbury, step another you are in Walsall.

“Obviously, everyone around there knows about Mark Lewis-Francis and what he achieved. It would be good to put my name up alongside his and put the town on the map again.”

While talk across the country is of things opening up and life getting back to normal, Whittaker is hoping his own lockdown doesn’t end until he is Olympic champion.

He and the rest of the GB boxing squad flew out to the Games on Saturday, having already spent the previous fortnight in a protective bubble at their Sheffield base.

Upon arrival they will be required quarantine for a further period before entering another bubble at the Olympic village.

For Whittaker, a huge fan of Japanese anime who admits to having watched hours of films to ease the lockdown boredom, it will knock a little of the gloss off his first-ever visit to the Far East.

Yet even before the pandemic postponed the Games by a year, this was always primarily a business trip.

“The rules we have to follow are a bit of a nuisance,” he says. “It is a once in a lifetime thing to go to a place like Japan but this is the way it has to be.

“We’ve been in the bubble for nearly two weeks now in Sheffield. It is just a case of stay in your house, go down to the gym when it is time to train and then come back. It’s not too exciting, obviously. But it is going to be like this for the rest of the journey.

“To be honest, my life over the past few years has been lockdown anyway. All we usually do is eat, train and sleep. The only difference now is if you need something from the shop, someone else has to go and get it for you.”

Like every other athlete heading to Tokyo, Whittaker has had to wait longer than expected for a moment he has been preparing for ever since he threw his first punches at Wodensborough Boxing Club under the watchful eye of dad, Tony.

From there he moved to the Firewalker gym before being called up to the GB podium squad in 2016.

A two-time national champion and world bronze medallist, the arrival of the pandemic saw Whittaker go more than 18 months without a competitive bout.

But victory in his first tournament back in April, followed by silver in the Games qualifying event, means he will be among the favourites for gold.

“I feel sharp,” says Whittaker. “The qualifiers were a good insight of where everyone is and a good measure of where I am. I feel I am on the right track.

“The moment I knew I’d qualified for the Games was a bit strange.

“It sounds weird but since I was a kid my dad has trained me for this moment.

“When you first get called up for Team GB they sit you on the edge of the ring and say: ‘OK, you have four years, whoever puts the work in, switches on, will be an Olympian’.

“It was always in my head I would be fighting in Tokyo. When I finally achieved it there was a sense of: ‘Oh, this is what it feels like?’

“I was expecting confetti, something like that! Instead, your hand gets raised, you have your little moment and the next day you are fighting again. You can’t get too excited.

“All the hard work starts again. Getting on the plane only means you have to go and do another job.”

Composed in conversation as he is when fighting in the ring, Whittaker puts his laid back attitude down to his Jamaican roots.

He remains acutely aware, however, of the rewards at stake in the coming weeks.

“People know this tournament can change your life,” he says. “But I’m going to treat it just like I would any other.

“Yes, it is the Olympics and a big title. But we have fought the same guys, we have sparred with the same guys, in so many others.

“You have worked all your life for this kind of moment. It is here so it is all about living in the now, not thinking too far ahead.

“Just make sure each day counts and you do the right things. The main thing is to be happy. If you overthink, it can become a bit of a chore. I am just going to take this one day at a time.”

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