In 2018, Olympic boxing was in chaos and looked in danger of being removed from the Tokyo Games. How did the IOC rescue the sport from the wreckage and deliver arguably the best organised and officiated boxing tournament in Olympic history? Luke G. Williams investigates, in conversation with IOC Sporting Director Kit McConnell…
It’s nearly eight weeks since the Tokyo Olympics drew to a close after a superlative boxing tournament that saw 276 fights across 13 weight classes – a large proportion of them both absorbing and entertaining.
More importantly, in the view of this writer, there was not a single judges’ decision among these 276 that could be labelled a “robbery”.
Quite a refreshing change for a sport which has – on far too many occasions – provided iconic Olympic moments defined by controversy rather than excellence. Who can forget – for example – Roy Jones Jr’s inexplicable points defeat against Park Si-Hun in Seoul 1988 or Michael Conlan’s two-fingered riposte to the judges who somehow saw him as the loser of his Rio 2016 bout against Vladimir Nikitin?
Unsurprisingly then, there is a palpable sense of satisfaction in the air when IOC Sporting Director Kit McConnell joins Boxing Social via Microsoft Teams for a wide-ranging conversation concerning all things OIympic boxing.
“The timing [of the interview] is good,” McConnell smiles. “We’re no longer in the middle of the journey. We’re at the wrap-up stage.”
McConnell is a highly experienced administrator in the sporting world – having previously served as Head of the Rugby World Cup among other roles. However, the challenge that the Antipodean and his colleagues at the IOC faced in terms of ensuring the boxing tournaments ran smoothly at the Tokyo Games was unique and unprecedented.
In 2018, the IOC suspended recognition of amateur boxing’s world governing body AIBA in 2018, leaving many to wonder whether the sport would appear at all in Tokyo.
“There were a lot of issues going on with AIBA and there still are, which are being addressed,” McConnell explains. “There were issues regarding governance, financial stability, refereeing and judging. All of these areas came to a head in 2018.”
Despite media speculation that Olympic boxing in Tokyo was doomed, McConnell insists that the priority of the IOC was to do whatever it could to make boxing’s inclusion in the Games viable.
“Technically it was an option to suspend not just AIBA but boxing itself from the Games. But we felt that would be punishing the athletes and we felt they had been punished enough already under the system that they had been operating within.
“Despite everything that had been going on in the sport, it was not the athletes themselves who had been the cause of the issues. There hadn’t been, for example, significant doping issues. It wasn’t a case of athletes cheating other athletes, it was a case of athletes being the victims of the system they were within, particularly when it came to some of the concerns that had been expressed on an ongoing basis concerning refereeing and judging. We wanted to protect the athletes and the participation of boxing, especially in Tokyo.”
Boxing has been a fixture of every modern Olympic Games since its debut appearance in 1904, bar Stockholm in 1912, and McConnell insists the sport possessed a fundamental importance within the Olympic movement.
“Boxing has a very important place in the programme of the Olympic Games. It’s a truly universal sport – it has strengths in certain regions and certain countries within those regions but it’s a sport that is practiced throughout the world. It’s also so accessible in terms of equipment and participation for both men and women.
“The role the sport plays in a social sense is important as well. Boxing doesn’t just offer a pathway out of very challenging circumstances for certain individuals in many places it is also a sport with a very strong community aspect to it that fulfil a role beyond elite sport.
“For those reasons there was a real recognition that we wanted to put the athletes first so while it was necessary to suspend the recognition of the international federation it was vital to find a way to deliver the qualification process for Tokyo and ultimately the Olympic competition itself in Tokyo.”
The decision of the IOC to ensure boxing’s participation, but not under the auspices of its governing body, was a momentous one.
“It was the first time in Olympic history that the IOC had done this,” McConnell says. “The first time we had stepped in and effectively run a competition ourselves. That shows the magnitude of the decision and the magnitude of the task in many ways.
“We set up two groups – one to monitor AIBA and take all the necessary steps in that regard and a second and separate one to run the technical side of the sport and the whole journey to Tokyo – throughout the process the two groups have been completely separate. We need to be very clear on that. There was no crossover between the group who were monitoring AIBA and addressing those concerns about finance, governance and ethics – they were totally separate.”
The group set up to administer and run the Olympic boxing qualifiers and tournament was named the Boxing Task Force and was established in June 2019.
“AIBA itself played absolutely no role in the qualifiers or the competition in Tokyo,” McConnell emphasises. “The only contact with AIBA was to get a database of contact details for referees and judges and if we had any questions regarding technical rules or anything like that.
“We set up [the Boxing Task Force] with a governance structure chaired by Morinari Watanabe from Japan along with Marius Vizer, who came from an experienced combat sport federation of judo, we had athlete representation on there with Aya Medany, and we also had William Blick and Willi Kaltschmitt, and we put in place a professional team to run the competitions.
“The Task Force was set up separate to the IOC structures. Of course it was done under the mandate of the IOC executive board decision but it operated as any international federation would in terms of decision making and so on – everything from choosing equipment suppliers to finalising the competition schedule. It wasn’t being run by the IOC sport department, it was a parallel structure.”
The underlying principles which guided the Task Force were – McConnell explains – “transparency and credibility”.
“We had to make decision about the sporting system, whether the boxers wore headgear or not, competition structures, the qualification process, the distribution of weight classes between men and women,” he expands. “Every time we came back to transparency and credibility and to do that we needed athletes at the table. We felt for too long athlete voice had been ignored.
“Athlete representation has grown massively across the Olympic movement over time, not only in terms of getting feedback but in terms of being at the table and having a voice in decision making. Aya Medany from Egypt was one of the five boxing task force members who was at the table for every decision.
“We also had the athlete ambassadors’ programme where we had a man and a woman from every one of the five regions [Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania]. They were also used at every step in terms of consultation prior to decision making.”
McConnell identifies several issues that were the subject of this decision making process, including the gender breakdown of boxing in Tokyo, which was just the third Olympics to feature female competitors in the sport after London 2012 and Rio 2016.
“Gender equality is really important for us. At Paris we are taking steps aiming for full gender equality in terms of the full number of men and women competing across the Games as a whole for the first time in Olympic history. In terms of boxing in Tokyo we looked at gender equality and significantly increased the balance between men and women boxers from Rio to Tokyo.
“We went from 250 men and 36 women at Rio to 186 men and 103 women, ultimately, in Tokyo. You can see the jump there in female competitors – it almost tripled. We also went from three to five female weight categories.
“We also looked at gender in terms of how we adjusted the schedule in Tokyo – the first boxing medal awarded was to a woman and across sessions we alternated between men and women being the final bout.”
The desire for transparency also drove the scoring system utilised in Tokyo, in which the scores of the five judges were displayed at the end of each round.
“We explored a lot of options and ultimately we went with the end of round public display of the scorecards so the boxers knew were they stood and could adjust their tactics along the way and so there were no surprises at the end of the fight.
“Another way we tried to be transparent was by not using any of the referees or judges from Rio so we could start with as fresh a slate as possible. Everyone appointed also went through compulsory ethics education, exams and seminars. All of those judging the sport had to be qualified and we also put in place background checks on an individual basis.
“We also had performance evaluations in place every step of the way. Some judges from the qualifiers didn’t make it to Tokyo. Some judges who started judging in the qualifiers didn’t finish the qualifiers. Judges were randomly drawn with independent oversight. We wanted strong, robust processes because at the end of the day gold medals are at stake.”
McConnell explains that the feedback the IOC have received since the Games from the competitors themselves has been positive and heartening.
“It really was a journey. We had incredibly positive feedback from the boxers themselves, right from the first qualifiers through to every other step of the way. That’s validating in many ways because the athletes were the focus.
“So to hear them come back and say that regardless of what country they came from, regardless of whether they were well known or unknown, regardless of whether they won or lost or even felt they had won when they lost, they felt the decisions had been made for the right reasons, and no other reasons has been very validating.”
What of the future then? AIBA’s problems have not gone away, with the IOC recently having re-affirmed their “deepest concerns” about the organisation’s flaws while on Thursday a report conducted by Richard McLaren and ordered by AIBA concluded that “in the vicinity of 11” bouts at the Rio Games were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.
“The Boxing Task Force was set up specifically for Tokyo,” stresses McConnell – who was speaking before the release of McLaren’s report. “They’re completing their final wrap-up reports over the next few months. It’s not in place for Paris and beyond.
“The monitoring group continues to monitor AIBA and we still have concerns in several areas under those key headings of governance, finance and refereeing and judging. Hopefully we will be able to give more clarity in the coming months about the way forward.”
Main image: Tokyo Olympic gold medal winner Galal Yafai. Photo: GB Boxing.