Work in Sports
Will boxing be knocked out?
SYDNEY, Australia -- It's an oft-used headline -- Boxing's On the Ropes! -- but hardly anybody remembers it flying into print before even the first punch has been thrown. But the sport is so damaged that there's already talk this could be the last Olympics to feature the same program that produced Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.
About all it would take is one more outrageous decision, one more corrupted result, just another Roy Jones fiasco. That one continues to resonate because Jones, now regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, could not sway the hometown judges in Seoul's 1988 Games and lost one of the worst-scored fights in Olympic history. But there have been so many in Olympic boxing over the years that not even a high official from its governing body can promise the sport's continuation. Said AIBA vice president Arthur Tunstall recently: "A new IOC president could look at boxing being a controversial sport and put a proposal to his executive that boxing goes off. That is something we have to wait and see what happens and make sure the Sydney boxing program doesn't have any problems."
It's hard to imagine it won't. There were only three protests lodged at the Atlanta Games but, even as recently as last year's World Championships, the Cubans staged a walkout over a poor decision, taking a default in the heavyweight division, even though they were later vindicated.
The corruption of judges is apparently so ingrained in the sport that AIBA has chosen to acknowledge it, embrace it even. It has promised any judge who comes forward with proof of a bribe that it will double the amount.
The U.S. team hasn't adopted a similar program but it, too, has decided the system is easier to work within than it is to fight. Coach Tom Mustin has schooled his boxers in ways that play to the judges. It's no use being best, he figures, if you can't prove it.
"One of our secrets," he said during the week, before the Games had begun, "is to keep the fight in the center of the ring, so all the judges can see. That seems to be working."
Also, Mustin says, his fighters will work harder for dramatic headhunting, on the premise that punching will be harder to ignore than boxing. "It's all about hard, head-snapping punches," he said. "That's what the judges can see."
In other words, while a judge can still cheat, he will have a harder time justifying his scoring than before.
Other reforms are more institutional. Jones' Seoul travesty resulted in computerized scoring, which has helped. Other furors have produced a call for hand-held scoring devices to record the accumulation of punches and video display of each judge's tally. Again, it's still not impossible to cheat, it's just going to take a slightly more brazen judge to pull it off.
And should some judge try, hoping to steer a medal his own country's way, he could very well be sounding the count for a once-popular sport, grown increasingly irrelevant and suspect with each act of corruption. It's been hard enough to enjoy professional boxing, with the overwhelming cynicism it demands. It would be a shame if Olympic boxing fell by the same wayside.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Richard Hoffer is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Hoffer's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.