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What next for Olympic boxing?

Olympic boxing
Morinari Watanabe will run the new task force to replace AIBA
The IOC reaches a bombshell verdict on AIBA and Olympic boxing. But the sport is let wondering what will happen next

THE very real risk of being excluded from the Olympic Games has been threatening boxing. The sport will stay in the programme for Tokyo 2020, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is set to suspend recognition of the sport’s beleaguered governing body AIBA.

AIBA has faced a host of issues; around its governance, officiating – notoriously so at Rio 2016 – financial stability and more. After launching an inquiry into AIBA in November of last year, the IOC’s Executive Board finally received its report last Wednesday (May 22). In light of those findings, the IOC Executive Board has recommended AIBA itself be suspended from administering the Olympic sport. The decision will need to be confirmed in the IOC session that will take place June 24-26.

An AIBA delegation had emerged from a meeting with the IOC’s inquiry two days before the verdict was delivered hopeful, optimistically maintaining that their organisation had made “significant progress in regards to finance, governance and refereeing and judging”. They added in a statement that “AIBA provided the committee with insights into its complete transformation of the organisation.”

Mohamed Moustahsane, the man who took over from Gafur Rakimov, himself a controversial appointment, as AIBA president, said, We have done everything in our power to work with the IOC and all of our Olympic Partners, and we remain optimistic about the future of Olympic Boxing and AIBA’s ability safeguard this great sport.”

But they had not appeased the IOC. The International Olympic Committee ruled this week that AIBA had not made sufficient progress and would no longer be recognised as the body to administer Olympic boxing. That will be reviewed, so AIBA does have a route back into the fold, but clearly only after Tokyo 2020 has been and gone. However far AIBA has gone in the process of reform further significant improvements will have to be made.

But at least the IOC has indicated that they still wish boxing to feature at the next Olympic Games, which is now just over a year away.

“Today’s decision was taken in the interest of the athletes and the sport of boxing. We want to ensure that the athletes can live their dream and participate in the Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020 while drawing the necessary consequences for AIBA following the recommendations of the Inquiry Committee. At the same time, we offer a pathway back to lifting the suspension, but there needs to be further fundamental change”, said IOC President Thomas Bach.

Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, has promised that boxers will be able to live their dreams at Tokyo 2020

Another body will have to run the boxing event at Tokyo 2020. Who that could be is unclear. There have been no similar tournaments conducted outside of the auspices of AIBA boxing. Referees and judges will still need to come from somewhere. Urgently for the boxers there needs to be clarity on what the qualification process would be. No events have been confirmed officially as qualifiers, not even the World championships which will take place later this year.

The IOC has set up a special task force to address this, which will be chaired by Morinari Watanabe, an IOC Member and President of the International Gymnastic Federation. He is not a boxing man, but he said: “My policy is ‘athlete first’. I would like to create an environment where athletes can be satisfied.” Thomas Bach believes as someone who has run an event based on subjective judging Watanabe can handle Olympic boxing. But how he assembles his task force will be crucial.

The task force will have to deliver qualification tournaments between January 2020 and May 2020 and the Olympic boxing tournament itself. It will have to confirm a qualification system, defining the categories for all events. There will be eight male and five female divisions, changing from the 10 men’s and three women’s divisions at the last two Olympics. But the actual weights will need to be confirmed as well as the number of quota places for men and women, and the IOC have placed a clear emphasis on gender equality.

AIBA itself will remain under scrutiny. In a statement the IOC noted: “The evolution of AIBA’s situation and progress towards compliance with the Olympic Charter and the IOC Code of Ethics are monitored through a special monitoring committee which consist of the members of the former Inquiry Committee.” It will have to satisfy the IOC’s requirements if it is to return as the governing body for Olympic boxing.

This decision is the latest event in the vortex of chaos that has engulfed AIBA. The IOC fear AIBA’s debts could spiral to as much as 29 million Swiss Francs by June 2021. Having Gafur Rakimov as president, even though he has now stepped aside, was a problem for AIBA functioning effectively since he remains designated on a US Treasury sanction list. The IOC’s Inquiry Committee’s understanding is that two Swiss banks decided to close AIBA’s accounts and no other financial establishment in Switzerland would let the organisation open new accounts. That led to them using a Serbian bank, API Bank and the IOC inquiry raised concern about the extent of their due diligence in making that decision. Russia’s Umar Kremlev, who apparently changed his name from Umar Lutfuloev, made a mysterious offer to wipe out $16 million of AIBA’s debt. Background checks on the origin of funds from external parties are a basic standard of good governance that international federations must implement so for AIBA to consider such an offer they would need to complete due diligence.

AIBA’s primary role is the development of the sport and supporting its athletes, hard to accomplish in its current precarious position. How it will cope in reaction to the ruling from the IOC Executive Board remains to be seen. Whether for instance AIBA might now consider making a legal challenge to the process the IOC has gone through to reach its decision is unclear. In the immediate aftermath of the bombshell announcement there was little forthcoming from AIBA, with a spokesperson merely stating that they would review the report and wouldn’t make any comments until further clarification. But they did note that: “AIBA does look forward to working with the IOC in the future.” That would seem to be a conciliatory sign that they will seek to follow the IOC’s guidelines towards restoring themselves as the governing body for the Olympic sport.

Michael Conlan was the victim of one of the most notorious decisions at Rio 2016
Action Images/REUTERS/Peter Cziborra

There will certainly be relief for the sport as a whole that 286 Olympic places will be available to boxers at Tokyo 2020. Who’s going to fill them, and how they’re going to get there – that is what we must find out next.

The show has to go on. In a fact a major tournament is looming at the end of next month. The European Games will take place in Minsk, Belarus from June 21-30. This is a kind of European Olympics, the athletes from Britain for instance will be representing Team GB. The event is now severed from any formal relation to Olympic qualifying but will still be administered by AIBA and their officials. To further complicate matters it will be held at the old weight classes some of which will be obsolete by the time qualifying for Tokyo 2020 eventually does come around, even if we don’t yet know exactly what the new divisions will be.

All the administrative mayhem might obscure the fact that Britain has a particularly good team going to Minsk, with much of the squad maturing at the right time in the course of their preparations for the Olympic Games. “The decision to ensure boxing is included at Tokyo 2020 is good news for the sport, the Olympic Games and, most importantly, all of the male and female boxers that having been working so hard for many years in their preparations for the Games,” a spokesperson for GB Boxing said. “All of the boxers, coaches and staff at GB Boxing have worked hard to ensure the uncertainty has not got in the way of our preparations for the Games and as we enter the final stages of the Olympic cycle, everyone at GB Boxing will continue to work hard and do everything we can, on a daily basis, to give our boxers the best possible chance of being successful at Tokyo 2020.”

Later on this year World championships for men and women are on the slate to take place in Russia. Normally at this point in the cycle there would be quota places for the Olympic Games available at these tournaments. That will now not be the case, which rather diminishes the prestige of the events. The hope has to be that at least these can be held in weight divisions that will be relevant to Tokyo 2020. The World Series of Boxing has been an entertaining league even if the quasi-pro bouts aren’t necessarily applicable to tournament boxing. Part of the appeal for the WSB in the last cycle was having Olympic qualification places available in its ranking system and having its own qualification event for WSB boxers. It will be hard to sustain the WSB without that draw.  It could well quietly vanish, much like AIBA’s ill-starred pro venture APB (AIBA Pro Boxing).

The whole qualification process for Rio 2016 was protracted over multiple events. It had the added complication of allowing national federations to select professional boxers and put them into a particular qualification event (Hassan N’dam Jikam was the most high profile pro to actually make it through and he fizzled out unimpressively at Rio 2016 itself). The whole qualification system can certainly be rationalised and the hope is that it will be. But most importantly the best tournament boxers need to find their way through to the Olympics. At present there is no indication yet as to how the new task force will decide to handle it. The IOC has reached a game-changing verdict. But what will replace the old system, how it will work, all still needs to be determined. A decisive move has been made to solve the problem of AIBA, but a host of new difficulties will arise to take its place. All the while time is fast running out.

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