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Pat Putnam
October 10, 1988
The U.S. placed six boxers in the final rounds—then they had to take on the judges
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October 10, 1988


The U.S. placed six boxers in the final rounds—then they had to take on the judges

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Hiouad Larbi, a boxing judge from Morocco, found himself surrounded by a swarm of angry journalists. Only moments earlier on Sunday, Larbi and two fellow judges had stolen a gold medal from Roy Jones, the American light middleweight who had soundly whipped South Korea's Park Si-Hun in their final bout. "How dare you?" demanded one of the writers. "How could you have voted for the Korean? Are you mad?"

Larbi stared down at the floor in obvious embarrassment. "It was a terrible thing," the Morrocan said softly. "The American won easily; so easily, in fact, that I was positive my four fellow judges would score the fight for the American by a wide margin. So I voted for the Korean to make the score only 4-1 for the American and not embarrass the host country."

When Park was declared the winner 3-2, Ken Adams, the U.S. head coach, all but accused Koreans of trying to bribe the judges. "The last two days I've seen a Korean in the judges' area with gold and an open wallet," said Adams. "One time he was showing a judge some gold he had wrapped in a rag. Another time he was offering an open wallet to a different judge. Nobody took anything. They both shook their heads; but they knew I was looking right at them."

Adams said he couldn't prove his charge and refused to name the judges involved, although he did say that one of them had worked the Jones bout. The Koreans were understandably enraged by Adams's charge and suggested that the gold Adams saw was only the flash of the gold-plated Olympic key chains they had given out as gifts.

For the U.S. what should have been a bright moment turned bitter. Twelve young American fighters had come to Seoul, quite alone in believing in themselves, and at the end of the 16 days of competition they stood atop the world of amateur boxing with three gold medals, three silvers and two bronzes.

They had been labeled Team Turmoil, but nothing fazed them. They had lost their best gold medal hope, featherweight Kelcie Banks, one minute and 50 seconds into his first bout; another heralded competitor, Anthony Hembrick, was out before ever throwing a punch after failing to arrive in time for his initial bout. A third medal hope, hard-hitting Todd Foster, was forced to fight—and beat—the same man twice in one night after officials ruled that his Korean opponent Chun Jin-Chung was entitled to a rematch after a disputed knockout. Chun, it seems, had dropped his hands when the horn sounded to end a round in the adjacent ring, and Foster decked him. So later that night, Foster knocked the Korean out again in the do-over. But in his next bout two days later, Todd lost to Grahame Cheney of Australia, as much from exhaustion as from anything Cheney had to offer.

Going into the finals, the U.S. boxing team had won 32 of its 38 bouts. Six men would be fighting for gold medals. "We know we're the best team in the world," Jones had said after his semifinal victory over Richard Woodhall of Great Britain. "We're in great condition, although other teams are in great condition too. But we have stronger minds; we are mentally tougher. We are just blowing people out."

In the finals it all began to come apart. The U.S. boxers could beat anyone inside the ring; they were no match for the officials outside. The most charitable explanation for the terrible scoring was incompetence; the darkest theory was Adams's. Or it could have been anti-American political mischief. Whatever, the finals were so tainted that, at the conclusion of the Games, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch suggested that boxing might be discontinued as an Olympic sport (he also cited two upcoming long-term studies on the health of amateur boxers).

Curiously, the same judges began to show up whenever an American fought. In the earlier rounds, judges were picked by pulling Ping-Pong balls from a plastic box; in the final rounds the officials—the referee and five judges—were appointed at the whim of Emil Jetchev of Bulgaria, who was in charge of judges and referees. Jetchev said he selected those who had been doing the best job during the preliminary rounds.

For the dozen final bouts 27 officials were used, though many more were on hand. Jetchev did not attempt to disguise his underhandedness; for the six gold medal bouts involving Americans, seven of his designated jurists worked 17 of the 30 judging positions, and four worked as referees. In contrast, the same seven men were called on to serve as judges in the six non-American bouts 13 times, but not one refereed.

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