A Kenyan boxer widely regarded as his country's best hope for a boxing gold medal in the Athens Olympics has had to withdraw from competition after being injured in a robbery while training in Nairobi.
Kenya's flyweight boxing champion Suleiman Bilali doesn't have much trouble in the ring. For five years, he's never lost a bout in Africa, and last October he took home a gold medal from the All Africa Games in Nigeria. He made it to the quarterfinals at the Sydney Olympics four years ago, losing by only a few points to a Spaniard who went on to win the gold.
Bilali was considered a likely contender for a gold medal in Athens. But that was before a gang of six robbers attacked him during training near his home in Kibera, one of several sprawling tin-shack slums in Nairobi. Nairobi is nicknamed "Nairobbery" for its rampant crime.
Bilali spoke by telephone from a Nairobi hospital, where he is being treated for his injuries.
"When they approached me and one of them he said to me, 'You think this time you go for the Olympics. We are sorry.' I know that they all knew who I was," he said.
A Kenyan police officer as well as a boxer, Bilali said he was able to fight off his attackers, some of them armed with machetes. But during the fight, Bilali aggravated a previous ankle injury, sustained in a car accident four months ago.
The new injury forced him from competition at the Athens Games.
Bilali's chiseled good looks are a testament to his speed and agility in the ring. When he is fighting he knows how to keep from being hit.
Out the ring, it's a different story. In 1998, he was hit by a car and sustained a serious knee injury. He was on crutches for two-and-a-half months, but still managed to put in a good performance two years later at the Sydney Games.
His coach Albert Matito doesn't dwell on the misfortunes that have befallen one of his most talented boxers. He's more concerned with what's next, which includes several upcoming competitions in Africa and abroad.
"He has improved, and you know he's a stylish boxer and very good with his punches. He's accurate. He can box well. We are now treating him," he said. "He's still young---he's 27 right now. And he knows he'll do good and he can do better than where he is now. Only that injury, if it heals, there will be no problem."
Bilali had hoped for a chance to bring a new boxing gold medal to Kenya, a former boxing powerhouse that hasn't won a gold medal in boxing since 1988.
"They are all hoping that when I go there I come back with the gold medal. But it's unfortunate that I'm not going there for the Athens Games, but I pray for David Munyasia," he said.
David Munyasia, a featherweight fighter, is now the only Kenyan boxer at the 2004 Games. Kenyans will now pin their hopes of Olympic boxing glory on him.