Special to TheSweetScience.com

ATHENS — American Andre Ward's win over the immortal Magomed Aripgadjiev came in what turned out to be the 271st and final bout at the Peristeri Boxing Hall on Sunday, and it allowed the US boxing team to escape an ignominy rivaled only by our basketball team.

Ward's light-heavyweight gold medal is one more than Americans won in Sydney, and equals this country's output in each of the two Olympics previous to that, when David Reid's light-middleweight title represented our only gold in Atlanta, and the only winner in Barcelona was Oscar De La Hoya at lightweight.

The widespread assumption, then, is that the US is on a four-Olympic drought that goes back a dozen years, but the truth of the matter is that it goes back much further than that. Montreal in 1976, when Leon and Michael Spinks, Ray Leonard, Howard Davis, and Leo Randolph all won, was the last big-time haul of gold acquired honestly by US boxers. Think about it: We won three gold medals in Seoul in 1988, and the Cubans weren't there. We didn't go to Moscow in 1980. And the tainted Olympics in between — Los Angeles in 1984 — might as well have been an intrasquad scrimmage. No Russians, No Cubans, No Eastern Europeans to be seen.

The US won nine gold medals in 1984, but consider this for a moment: We sent nine boxers to Athens for the Olympics just concluded, and the eight who were eliminated all lost to boxers from countries which weren't even represented in Los Angeles twenty years ago.

“What your boys need to get back on the rails,” suggested a British journalist at Peristeri the other day, “is another boycott.”

The suggestion that the US had “long dominated” Olympic boxing is misplaced, then, for if one throws out the LA results, Montreal in 1976 stands as an aberration. We won just one gold medal in Munich (Ray Seales), two in Mexico City (George Foreman and Ronnie Harris), one in Tokyo (Joe Frazier), and even the 1960 US team in Rome, recalled as one of the greatest of all time, managed just three gold medals, from Cassius Clay, Sgt. Eddie Crook, and Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure.

There's yet another reason for our dwindling medal haul: The “Stan” factor. Bob Arum, who years ago used to regard the Olympics as the mother lode, claims that “all those Stans ruined Olympic boxing.” They might not have ruined it, but they've made it a damned sight harder for Americans to aspire to medals.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the realignment of the world order might have been great for humanity, but it has enormously complicated Olympic boxing. It was one thing when you might have to beat a Russian to get out of the first round, but now if you do, you might still have to face an Uzbeki to get to the quarters, and if you beat him you might have to fight a guy from Belarus in order to get to the finals against a Kazak or, worse, a Cuban. The eight Americans who lost in Athens were all beaten by fighters from present or former Communist-bloc nations, and not one of them was a Russian.

Just before US lightweight Vinnie Escobedo fought one of these lads in the second round at Athens, a journalist familiar with European boxers warned me that “these Azerbajiani boxers can be tougher than old bloody boots.”

He was right, as it turned out, and besides the Azerbajiani, the Americans eliminated here lost to three Cubans, a Belarussian, an Uzbeki, a Bulgarian, and a Chinese.

The less said the better about Jason Estrada's embarrassing performance both during and after his quarterfinal bout against Michel Lopez Nunez. Estrada, who had defeated the Cuban rather handily in last year's Pan-Am games, had eaten his way up to 265 pounds by the time they met again in Athens, and this time put up only token resistance. He shrugged off the loss by announcing “I don’t care,” and infuriated reporters and teammates alike when he said “If I'm going to lose, I'm going to lose getting hit as little as possible.”

US coach Basheer Abdullah said he was upset by “both the loss, and the way the US athlete conducted himself after the loss.”

The portly superheavyweight from Providence “showed no class, no pride, and no respect,” said Abdullah. “I was very disappointed. (Estrada) embarrassed his country, his national governing body, and the USOC. I just hope I never have to go through something like that again.”

The consensus of opinion on Estrada: Robert Mittelman is welcome to him.

A few more observations from Athens

Olympic boxing in general seems to have degenerated into an almost unwatchable sport. It's become an exercise in floor gymnastics wearing boxing gloves, and the idea now seems to be to throw enough pitty-pat jabs to build a lead, and then run like hell for the rest of the night. The Cubans are very good at this, but no wonder nobody wants to watch it on television; it's painful enough to witness firsthand. The knockout has become a lost art, since any opponent hit hard enough to be remotely wobbled gets a standing-8. The result has become a new generation of amateur boxers who don't even TRY to throw punches with bad intentions.

British lightweight sensation Amir Khan, who won a silver medal at the tender age of 17, was an obvious exception. Young Khan stopped two of his first four opponents before running into a masterful matador, Mario Kindelan of Cuba, in Sunday's gold medal match. Welterweight Vanes Martirosyan appeared to be the only American who threw punches like he meant them, and he went out in the second round.

And then there were the judges.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that my 16 year-old son and four of his Nintendo-playing friends could probably have done a better job of operating the computerized scoring devices than the Athens judges did. The judges comprising these five-man panels come from nations all over the world, including some which don't even have regularly-scheduled boxing events. They range from middle-aged to just plain old, and it's a safe bet that few of them have ever been at the controls of a PlayStation.

On balance, you'd have to say that the new system has discouraged the wholesale larceny that characterized Olympic judging in the past. The experience of the Athens Games would suggest that when the judges did screw up here, it wasn't because they were crooked, but because they were inept.