Boxing: Bruised by another low blow
Three days before he entered the ring in the Chamsil Students' Gynasium in Seoul to contest the 1988 Olympic light-middleweight final against Park Si-Hun, Roy Jones Junior was clear about the task that confronted him. Here's what he told reporters. "I know how tough it is to get a decision against a South Korean," Jones said. "But it doesn't matter. If they cheat me, that's okay. I'll know if I really won it."
Jones knew that to make absolutely certain of victory, he was going to require a knockout. It wasn't enough that he delivered another masterclass in the art of boxing. Or that he dominated the fight from the first bell to the last, battering his opponent mercilessly around the ring, registering 86 punches to Si-Hun's 36. None of it mattered because Jones still ended up losing.
It is 24 years now since the greatest scandal in Olympic boxing history unfolded. Since a sport on the verge of expulsion by the International Olympic Committee finally resolved to get busy with the spivs and cheaters who nibbled away at the soul of amateur boxing like a cancer. In the wake of Seoul, computerised scoring was introduced and words like openness and transparency found their way into the AIBA's lexicon.
So how far has it come? Last October, as he was leaving the World Championships in Baku, Billy Walsh felt the first knot of anxiety in his stomach. Three Irish boxers had made the cut for the Olympics but, to get more, they would have to turn their gaze to the final European qualifier in Trabzon six months down the line. Walsh surveyed the Turkish team's performances in Baku. No boxers qualified for London. "Not good," he thought.
Why Turkey anyway? For a governing body that natters on relentlessly about transparency, there seems to be a scarcity of it when it comes to explaining the criteria behind the awarding of big tournaments. When the 2011 World Championships were up for grabs, Ireland and South Korea happened to be the two rival bidding countries. Despite a strong Irish bid, the verdict fell in favour of South Korea.
Or at least it did until, somewhere along the way, the tournament was wrestled back and handed to Baku, a city once coveted by Adolf Hitler for its vast oil stocks. Having so narrowly missed out on the big pot, Irish boxing officials naively assumed they'd be in the driving seat to host the European Olympic qualifying event. Think again. That went to Azerbaijan's staunchest ally, Turkey.
A month before the World Championships, where it would find itself fending off allegations that Azerbaijan had paid millions of dollars to ensure two gold medals in London, the AIBA introduced a rule whereby every home boxer at a major championship was automatically seeded. Controversially, an Azeri super-heavyweight was seeded second even though he was ranked outside the world's top 50 in the division.
The AIBA's rather tenuous explanation was that the seeding rule was brought in to encourage nations to launch bids for major tournaments. You can imagine them having a good chuckle at that on the South Circular Road. All told, the AIBA doesn't appear to have too much trouble doling out major championships and some countries seem to fare better than others.
On top of last year's World Championships, Azerbaijan also hosted the 2010 World Youth Championships, the 2009 AIBA Presidents Cup and the 2007 World Cadet Championships. As well as this week's qualifier, Turkey hosted last year's European Championships, originally earmarked for Dublin, and both the 2011 Women's Youth and Junior Championships. Turkey, remember, is the only place Katie Taylor ever found it difficult to win.
Nor should we forget their friendly Caspian neighbours, Kazakhstan. Not content with staging last year's World Junior Championships, they'll go a step further next year and host the senior version. Ten days ago, the Asian Olympic qualifiers concluded in the capital city, Astana. Kazakhstan had four fighters entered and three made the cut for London. Hosting matters, you see.
It mattered in Trabzon this past week, the home town of four of the 10-strong Turkish team. Not for nothing visiting boxers, in the build-up to the tournament, prayed for a good preparation, to remain injury-free and, above all, to avoid a Turk in the main draw. Even allowing for the obvious benefits of home advantage, a raucous atmosphere that could innocently affect all-too-human referees and judges, the Turkish team's performance still far exceeded all expectations.
How far they had come from their poor showing in Baku last year. Of the 10 boxers they brought to the World Championships, five failed to progress past the first round. Of a total of 16 fights Turkish boxers contested, only six were won and only one boxer succeeded in getting beyond the second round. Still, we shouldn't get too hung up on those numbers as five of that team had been discarded by the time last week's qualifier came around.
Of far superior relevance is the Chemistry Cup that took place in Germany last month where eight of the current Turkish team were in action. In a strong tournament in which Joe Ward was an impressive winner of the 81kg division, only two Turkish boxers reached a semi-final and, from a total of 15 fights, they won five, a mere 33 per cent success rate. On the surface, there was no reason to fear them in Trabzon.
That soon changed, however. In front of a passionate home crowd and with Olympic qualification on the line, Turkish fighters suddenly became virtually invincible. By the close of business on Wednesday, they had contested a total of 21 fights and won 19, a remarkable turnaround given their previous performances. Two had already nailed their Olympic berths. By yesterday, four more had joined them.
Among them was Bahram Muzaffer, the local fighter who controversially saw off Joe Ward on Monday. Muzaffer is a decent boxer with a bronze at last year's European Championships to his name, but he is by no means a fearsome opponent. Kenny Egan beat him with minimum fuss at the 2008 Olympics and we saw what Ward did to Egan in successive national championships.
In the Chemistry Cup, Muzaffer could not cope with the power of Elshod Rasulov in his first fight, going down 17-11. In the next round Ward brushed the Uzbekistan boxer aside on a scoreline of 20-9. The eternal beauty of sport depends on shocks and logic going astray, of course, but if form is ever to mean anything then Ward's surprising demise should at least beg serious questions.
Not many of us witnessed the bout, it must be said, as for some reason the AIBA provided no live stream before semi-finals day on Friday. All we know is that the Irish team, never known for sour grapes, was incensed and bewildered by the 18-15 verdict. In a detailed post-fight analysis, they adjudged Ward to have won the last round 12-4 and the fight 33-18. Even allowing for the atmosphere and the subjective nature of judging, even a possible pro-Ward bias, that's still a large discrepancy to explain away.
If anything, Irish officials seemed restrained in voicing their obvious anger at the perceived injustice inflicted on Ward. Two impulses lay behind this: an acceptance that as heartbreaking as it was for Ward the sport was a heck of a lot cleaner than it used to be and the surviving glimmer of hope that, somehow, Ward might yet enjoy an Olympic reprieve, either through a wild card or a Tripartite Commission invitation.
They lodged their protest, as they had to, and then quickly moved on. The hope now rests with diplomacy and whatever clout Ireland can muster in the boardrooms of the Olympic movement. Yet if Ward was to secure an Olympic place by dint of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, should we feel as uneasy about that as the perceived injustice meted out to him in the ring last week?
Ultimately, this isn't about Joe Ward or Irish boxing. For all the strides the amateur code has taken since Seoul, it still suffers serious credibility issues. What to make of a sport, for instance, that devises a qualification system for women's boxing at the Olympics that includes only one qualifying event and keeps a staggering four wild cards in reserve for each division, releasing only vague criteria as to how they will be dispersed?
Or a qualifying system for men that remains heavily weighted against boxers representing European nations? In response, the AIBA would claim that the continental qualifying structure ensures a global spread of competitors at the Olympics, yet you'd wonder if the changed landscape ushered in by the fall of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago ever truly registered.
So Australia, a country that has only ever won five Olympic medals and none since Seoul, gets to bring a full complement of 10 boxers via the ridiculously easy route of the Oceania qualifiers held last month in Canberra. Why too, we should ask, are England, Wales and Scotland allowed to field separately at Olympic qualifiers when they stand as a single entity during the Games? Why hasn't such a glaring inequity ever been addressed?
Maybe it was Ward's fault that he didn't nail his Olympic spot in Baku, but the AIBA should realise that its main showpiece is weakened by the absence of one of the world's brightest young talents. It's not just Ward. Albert Salimov taking on the great Vasyl Lomanchenko at 60kg was one of London's most tantalising prospects, but can't happen now because Salimov was controversially disqualified in his first bout in Baku when miles ahead and suffered injury in Trabzon last week. Should there be a wild card for him too?
Boxing is already a hard enough sport without added complexities. Walsh and his Irish team had to perform under intense pressure last week and, once again, they responded magnificently. After Ward's defeat, Walsh faced the tough task of managing his four remaining fighters and seeing Paddy Barnes and Adam Nolan push the number of Olympic qualifiers to five was an immense achievement. Tommy McCarthy and David Oliver Joyce fell short but still left Turkey with considerably enhanced reputations.
As for Joe Ward? Those who know him say he is tough and mature enough to put a chastening experience behind him, but that might be easier said than done. For all Jones' sangfroid under duress in Seoul, the pain remained with him for years. Asked for his thoughts during an interview for Sports Illustrated in 2001, Jones described the Olympic final as "the worst day of my life". That's how much it hurt.
But at least Jones made the final. He had his Olympics. As he returns home with his team today, Joe Ward knows he does not even have that consolation.
Sunday Indo Sport