JEJU, South Korea — There probably never will be a movie made about political turmoil within the International Boxing Association (AIBA), the global governing body for Olympic-style boxing. But there ought to be, because there was genuine behind-the-scenes drama within the organization in the late 1990s and into the first few years of the 21st century. It’s a compelling tale of corruption, coercion, bribery and violence, with Russian thugs even lurking in the background.
And if Dr. Ching-Kuo Wu, since 2006 the reform-minded president of AIBA, is to be believed, the continued existence of boxing as part of the huge quadrennial Olympic festival hung in the balance. Yes, there was boxing in the 2012 London Olympics, and there will be boxing in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but rumblings about the long-term health of the one of the sports under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have been heard for the better part of 20 years. One more confidence-eroding scandal, one more verifiable incident of fixed fights, of bought-and-paid for officials, of charlatans in high places and … well, who knows? Dynasties have been toppled for far less.
“I’ve been hearing for the last three Olympics that we (boxing) might be on the chopping block,” Mike Martino, interim executive director of USA Boxing, said here at the 2014 AIBA Congress, a gathering of 50 national federations (oops, make that 47; representatives of three West African countries were advised not to come because of fears the Ebola virus might have tagged along with them) that is notable if only for the fact that this is the first such event in which members of the worldwide media were invited to attend. For AIBA, which for 25 years under the late Dr. Anwar Chowdhry of Pakistan regarded reporters as enemies, this new era of relative transparency is akin to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
Those of us who have caught a glimpse of what is behind the formerly closed curtains are seeing is the implementation of many policy changes, not the least of which is a transition into professional boxing. The tinkering is still not universally welcomed or accepted, but if change is coming, at least let it be above-board and made with the purest of intentions.
“Any reform is not easy,” said Dr. Wu, 68, a soft-spoken and conservatively dressed individual who seems an unlikely candidate for the role of crusading firebrand. “But you have to show your determination in the face of any threat. When you are strong, they become weak.
“I insist on change. I say (to supporters of Chowdhry, who was voted out of office in 2006), `If you do not agree, you can leave. If you break the rules, you will face disciplinary action.’”
Chowdhry loyalists who didn’t agree with the new president depicted him as something more dangerous than his deposed predecessor, who had come to regard AIBA as his personal fiefdom and ATM. The most hard-line faction of the opposition filed multiple lawsuits against Dr. Wu in Lausanne, Switzerland, headquarters of the IOC, in the hopes of killing or at least stalling his initiatives.
“They went to the courts, accusing AIBA, accusing me,” he said. “I went to see the judge in the Swiss court. He said I did not need to come back. All of the complaints against me were dismissed.”
So Dr. Wu – sort of sounds like a character from a James Bond movie, doesn’t it? – triumphs in the closing reel of that movie that probably never will get made. But along the way there was intrigue, turmoil and even a corpse, which are plot elements with which the late Ian Fleming, creator of superspy 007, would have had a field day.
That the new-look AIBA is meeting on this resort island, a few hundred miles from the South Korean capital of Seoul, site of the 1988 Summer Olympics, is somewhat curious. It was in Seoul that America’s Roy Jones Jr. was involved in the most blatant ripoff in the history of Olympic boxing. But the “loss” by Jones – by a 3-2 margin, after he had thoroughly outclassed South Korea’s Park Si-Hu – was hardly an aberration. Lousy decisions have been endemic in Olympic boxing, although steps are being taken to reduce and, hopefully, even eliminate outright thievery.
“I have been a member of the IOC since 1988,” said Dr. Wu, who is familiar with the stench emanating from the Jones shafting. “I gave my commitment to the sports of the Olympic movement. That is my mission. I have to do everything I can to make sure the Olympic spirit and values are maintained.
“I also have been a member of the AIBA executive committee since 1982. There was so much manipulation of the competition under m predecessor, with the cheating, the selling of gold medals. That is totally against my principles. In 1998, I said to my predecessor, `I’m sorry, but I have to challenge you. I am going to run for president.’ He was shocked. Many people were shocked. They said my getting elected would be nearly impossible. But I wanted them to know I at least offered the possibility for change.
“Chowdhry said, `C.K. Wu, you will not get more than 12 votes.’ I got 39 (to Chowdhry’s 79). It totally surprised him because he paid many national federations that did not vote for him. It was driving him crazy. He said, `They take my money and don’t vote for me? What is that?’ But from that moment, I know there is a possibility for change.
“After I lost the election, I give my speech to the delegates and thanked them for their support. And I said, `I will return.’”
Dr. Wu did not run for the AIBA presidency in 2002, since he was advised he did not yet have enough backing to oust Chowdhry. But he tossed his hat into the ring again in 2006, and this time he emerged victorious by a vote of 83-79. His election apparently came none too soon, either.
“I was told,” Dr. Wu said, “that if I did not win when I did, boxing would be out of the Olympic movement. “Some of the delegates were reluctant to even talk to me because they are afraid of revenge from (Chowdhry).”
A pro-Chowdhry Russian delegate is said to have brought in outsiders who were members of the “Russian Mafia” to intimidate other delegates into voting for the incumbent. Perhaps it is just coincidence, but one pro-change delegate was found murdered. If that didn’t scare the bejeezus out of the electorate, nothing could.
“Very dramatic,” Dr. Wu said of most consequential election in AIBA history. “You could make a film of it, easily. But I won, by four votes. That changed everything. If I had lost, boxing is out of the 2012 Olympics, maybe even out of the 2008 Olympics.”
Chowdhry, who was 86 when he died on June 19, 2010, is not around to give his side of the story, but there no doubt are those who would say that if he were, his recollections would cast him in a more favorable light. In any case, in 2007, Chowdhry was barred for life from AIBA for mismanagement of federation funds. That fact alone would seem to substantiate Dr. Wu’s allegations.
As part of his program for nudging AIBA to a place where chicanery eventually becomes a hazy part of the past, Dr. Wu has initiated the World Series of Boxing and AIBA Pro Boxing, in which elite fighters can maintain their Olympic eligibility and also get paid. It is a concept that is embraced by numerous nations, with the chief pocket of resistance predictably coming from powerhouse American promotional companies that object to certain restrictions of movement placed upon AIBA-signed boxers.
Where does the United States fit into the ever-shifting picture? Not as prominently as it once did, and that is something that greatly concerns Dr. Wu. The lion’s share of funding in any Olympiad comes from the sale of American television rights, and boxing has been relegated to also-ran status on the Olympic TV schedule as fewer and fewer U.S. Olympians advance deep, if at all, into the medal rounds. Although the U.S. has amassed 108 total boxing medals since the modern Olympics were introduced in 1896, the most of any nation, American men were shut out in London for the first time ever.
“We have become the little guys,” conceded Tom Virgets of the United States Naval Academy, who serves as the AIBA disciplinary commission chairman as well as a member of the APB executive board.
“Of this problem we are fully aware,” Dr. Wu said of USA Boxing’s transformation into a beggar at the Olympic banquet. “We are involved in trying to make things change. United States boxing is unlike other national federations. There are so many (state and regional subsets) and they are totally divided. There needs to be a strong central body to lead U.S. boxing movement. Kazakhstan, very strong boxing federation. China, very strong boxing federation. Japan, the same. But United States? Very loose organization. Unless there is complete change with strong leadership, there can be no (improvement).”
The crux of the problem is that other nations, hungry for Olympic medals, are financially supporting their centralized boxing federations in a substantial way. The U.S., by comparison, is like the Boy Scout troop whose moms are forever conducting bake sales so their kids can go on their next woodlands outing.
“(The USOC’s) allocation (to USA Boxing) is $300,000,” Dr. Wu said. “For such a big country, that is impossible. With so little money, it only goes to administration. No development. The structure is totally wrong.
“AIBA pay the money to support (the U.S. WSB) franchise, from our budget. But our support did not get USOC’s attention. I say, `You have to support your boxing, to bring back your glory.’ You used to get five gold medals (at the 1976 Montreal Olympics), nine gold medals (1984, Los Angeles). Now you have zero, except for women. Why? Because nobody pay attention. Nobody cares.
“If somebody really cares, then put money in. Bring in the best boxers. Bring in the best coaches. Centralize. USA is 50 states. Everyone independent. Boxing federation is only symbolic. What power they got? No money. Bad cycle. Worst of the worst.”
Maybe, if the next Sugar Ray Leonard or Oscar De La Hoya were to emerge in Rio in 2016, the bleak landscape might brighten for the U.S. Dr. Wu said the WSP and APB will create Olympic boxers with star power, at least for other countries, and America badly needs someone who can jab and hook his way into the spotlight and make it his own.
“You have no brilliant boxer. No star,” Dr. Wu told two visiting reporters from the Philadelphia area. “Difficult to get marketing, sponsorship. But (the U.S. has) many good boxers. Just need intensive training.
“Once you have one gold medal, two gold medals, everything change. That is my experience.”
And if anyone knows how to bring about change, as difficult as the process sometimes is, it is the guy who took a scrub brush to a soiled AIBA. Then again …
“In the end, the bureaucracy wins out. You can’t beat City Hall,” Teddy Atlas, who called the bouts for NBC-TV at the London Olympics, earlier this year said of his doubts that the situation has changed all that much. “The same old crap goes on and on and on. Olympic boxing has become a joke. It’s not even relevant any more. The scoring is ludicrous. You see a guy from Japan drop a guy from Azerbaijan seven times and he still loses the fight … I mean, come on.”
Dr. Wu hears the complaints and he acknowledges that much work still needs to be done. In the 2016 Olympics, three of the five assigned judges for any bout will be randomly selected by a computer and their only their scores will be tabulated. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than what had been in place. And judges and referees whose work is suspect can expect to be weeded out.
Virgets said there always will be controversial decisions in Olympic boxing, because opinions will differ on the outcome of any match that is subjectively scored. But he pointed out to the enthusiasm he witnessed during the first women’s boxing competition as proof that the sport remains alive and relatively well at the Olympic level.
“Every single session sold out, in a venue with 5,400 seats,” Virgets recalled. “it was one of the toughest tickets to get. During the finals, the decibel level was, like, 10 times that of a jet plane taking off. An incredible atmosphere.”