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The Olympic nightmare for boxing

Umar Kremlev Olympic boxing
IBA
The end is almost nigh for boxing as an Olympic sport but there is a lifeline, writes John Dennen. The rebranded AIBA must realise the severity of this situation before it’s too late

AS things stand, boxing will drop out of the Olympic Games after Paris 2024. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has left it off the programme for Los Angeles 2028. This is an alarming step in the wrong direction. Losing its Olympic status would be catastrophic for the sport as a whole. This move makes it abundantly clear that the IOC was not bluffing when it warned that if boxing was unable to reform itself, eradicate corruption and stabilise its finances and governance, it would be excluded from the Olympics. That disastrous scenario is looming.

There is a route back for boxing. There is a pathway for the sport to be restored to the Olympic Games; world governing body AIBA must demonstrate that it has successfully addressed the ongoing concerns around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability, and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes. They must do this to the IOC’s satisfaction by the IOC session in 2023.

But this means it falls to AIBA, the organisation that got Olympic boxing into such a mess, to get the sport out of it.

They have at least been making some reforms. Russia’s Umar Kremlev was elected AIBA president a year ago, despite the IOC raising concerns about him at the time. He has been ushering in changes. The organisation has rebranded as IBA, the International Boxing Association, too. More substantially, they commissioned Professor Richard McLaren to independently investigate corruption and crooked judging. He has delivered the next part of his report. As well as confirming manipulation took place at the 2016 Olympics, his investigation found that bout rigging continued “unabated” at several major boxing events over the five years following the Games in Rio de Janeiro. “The manipulation of bouts that existed and flourished from 2016 to 2021 was more ad-hoc and less centralised than what was found to be present at Rio,” McLaren reported.

This investigation is significant, but acting on its recommendations and bringing in the measures to truly prevent this corruption from continuing will be all important.

Professor Ulrich Haas has presented the report of the Governance Reform Group previously approved by IBA’s Board of Directors. Included among the amendments was the creation of a new Boxing Independent Integrity Unit, which IBA expects to become operational in the course of 2022. The Board of Directors will be reduced from 28 members to 18, following elections to be held by June 30. Candidates for election should be subject to eligibility checks, which would be conducted independently. IBA therefore expects extensive changes to the Board’s composition based on the imposition of term limits and enhanced eligibility criteria.

“We’re grateful for this opportunity. We now have the chance to develop a roadmap that will lead to our reinstatement at the IOC session in 2023. We must continue improving our governance. We have adopted new governance reforms less than 27 hours after the IOC mentioned it. Of course this was only made possible thanks to our work that we started months ago and it was only possible because we have changed our culture of governance. We now listen to independent experts and we follow their advice. We must reform our referee and judging system,” the president Umar Kremlev said. “We’ve started to put our problems behind us.”

“The World championships in Belgrade was actually the start of this work. Of course we need to make it clear to everyone that we are committed to changing the way we think,” he added. “We need to embrace integrity and transparency and we guarantee our athletes that they will be judged fairly.”

While boxing remains on the programme for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, the actual categories that will be contested still need to be confirmed. The IOC expect parity in the number of men’s and women’s weight classes, but IBA must decide what men’s divisions will come out, what women’s divisions will come in and how the weights will change. The IBA have said they’ve begun work towards defining the weight categories and developing an Olympic Qualification System, subject to IOC approval, for Paris 2024.

Boxing has a lot going for it as an event in the Games. Its history for a start, it’s one of the original Olympic sports and is the sport of great Olympians, including Muhammad Ali no less. It attracts reasonably good viewing figures, and draws competitive entrants from all across the world. It’s a sport that a wide variety of smaller nations can, and do, medal in. But that no longer is enough. The latest IOC ruling makes that abundantly evident. Boxing does not have an inextinguishable right to be an Olympic event. IBA and its leaders cannot be complacent. Boxing is not untouchable.

“I’m sure that if we do good work there will be no reason not to have us. I cannot speak on behalf of the IOC of course but I can tell you that we will be transparent and clean,” Kremlev said. 

Olympic boxing isn’t just teetering on the precipice now, it’s lurched over it. There is a lifeline that IBA, the rebranded AIBA must grab. It must implement dramatic, effective change to prevent, most importantly of all, cheating over the long term. It must realise how severe this situation is before it’s too late. Being suspended from administering the Tokyo Olympics should have been a wake-up call. An IOC Task Force won’t be coming in to save boxing for the 2028 Olympics as it did in Japan. There will be no more second chances. IBA must realise this and solve these problems. Otherwise it’ll only have itself to blame, but the whole sport will bear the cost.

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