It made its Olympic debut in ancient Greece c. 688 BC and has been a staple at the Games since 1920, but boxing could be knocked out of the 2020 edition. On Friday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will meet in Tokyo for two days to take a call after its president Thomas Bach said he was “extremely worried about the governance, ethical and financial management of AIBA”, the International Boxing Association.
Governance: Match-fixing and subjective ruling
In February, the IOC opened an investigation, and said that concerns remained over possible match-fixing at the 2016 Rio Games. AIBA, the body that governs amateur boxing, sidelined all 36 referees and judges used in Rio following controversy over the new “10-point must” scoring system, and complaints by some boxers that they were robbed of victory.
“They’re f**king cheats. I’ll never box for AIBA again, they’re cheating ba***rds, they’re playing everybody,” said Michael Conlan of Ireland, who turned professional after a controversial defeat to Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin in the quarterfinal.
In May, Bach had said boxing must urgently review the way judges were appointed for matches, and that the IOC had not accepted AIBA’s claim that no bouts in Rio were affected by matchfixing. “…We want to see the refereeing system — that means the appointments of judges… — approved by independent expertise,” he had said.
AIBA gave up its earlier scoring system that awarded a point for each successful punch landed, in favour of the 10-point must rule from professional boxing in order to attract competitors and fans of the more popular stream. Judges now award 10 points per round to one boxer based on vague criteria such as “quality of punches” and “dominance”. The resulting subjectivity has fuelled controversy. Last week, Bulgarian coach Petar Lesov and boxer Stanimira Petrova were expelled from the Women’s World Championship in Delhi after they accused the judges of corruption following defeat to India’s Sonia Chahal.
Ethics: A president with a chequered past
AIBA has been riven by infighting. Former president C K Wu was provisionally suspended, and he stepped down last November after a dispute with his own executive committee. Vice president Franco Falcinelli became interim chief, only to be replaced as interim president by Gafur Rakhimov in January 2018. An extraordinary AIBA Congress in Moscow earlier this month confirmed Rakhimov, who was declared the sole eligible candidate, as president. In between, Falcinelli was provisionally suspended — the suspension was lifted this week.
Bach had warned in February that the appointment of Rakhimov — who remains on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list as “one of Uzbekistan’s leading criminals” and an alleged key figure in the global heroin trade with links to a crime network known as “thieves-in-law” — was among AIBA’s “serious problems”.
Rakhimov, a former Asian Boxing Confederation president and AIBA vice president for 15 years, was banned from entering Australia for the Sydney 2000 Games. Until September, he was on Interpol’s most wanted list.
In July, Uzbekistan removed Rakhimov from its “wanted list” of alleged criminals, but he still faces a criminal investigation for alleged extortion and money laundering. An AIBA statement in May confirmed the 66-year-old had “instructed lawyers” in Washington and London to petition the US Treasury to drop his name.
At the Worlds, Rakhimov assured “there is nothing to worry” about boxing’s future in the Olympics. “These (issues) have been happening for many years and we have been correcting them. It has nothing to do with one person and the person’s interest will not be above boxing. Boxing will always be in Olympics.”
Finances: Frozen payments and bankruptcy
Last December, IOC froze payments to AIBA, saying its “financial statements have not been made fully transparent”. In less than a month, AIBA reached an out-of-court settlement with Azerbaijan’s Benkons on a fight over a $10 million loan, and later settled with the Hong Kong firm FCIT. The IOC had earlier withheld from AIBA more than $1 million in TV rights for the 2004 Athens Olympics after a refereeing scandal.
Way forward: Future tense
In the world of combat sports, amateur boxing jostles for space with professional boxing and mixed martial arts. Its crowd-pulling abilities face stiff competition from Esports. Exclusion from the Olympics now will be tough to recover from. For boxers in the middle of an Olympic cycle, the blow will be crippling; for someone like India’s six-time world champion Mary Kom, aiming at a last shot at gold in Tokyo, it will be nothing less than catastrophic.
After being elected president, Rakhimov pronounced this month that he “will never stand in the way of an Olympic future for boxing”. Bach has stressed that boxers will not suffer due to the problems faced by its governing body. “We don’t want athletes to be punished by the bad behaviour of some officials,” Bach has said. “Irrespective of the decision taken (in Tokyo)… we will make the necessary efforts to ensure that athletes have the possibility to pursue their Olympic journey.”
Former world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko has suggested a solution — that the World Boxing Association (WBA), oldest of the four major organisations in professional boxing, replace AIBA as the federation responsible for organising the Olympic boxing event. “We need a combined effort to protect life-changing dreams of athletes who want to participate in the upcoming Games,” said Klitschko, who won the super heavyweight gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Some steps in the right direction have indeed, been taken. AIBA became compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency, and increased quotas for women both in the ring and on its ruling executive board, fulfilling IOC’s anti-doping and gender equality requirements.
But Bach has shrugged off the developments: “(It) shows some progress and shows goodwill but still lacks execution and in some areas lacks substance.”