Five-Ring Circus

“It Makes Me Want to Vomit”: Why Olympic Boxing Is So Crooked

Magomed Abdulhamidov
Turkmen boxing referee Ishanguly Meretnyyazov (L) monitors the action between Satoshi Shimizu (R) of Japan and Magomed Abdulhamidov (C) of Azerbaijan during the London 2012 Olympics.

Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP/GettyImages

Last week, I asked whether judo was the easiest Olympic sport to rig. Well, call me naïve, because it’s obviously boxing. Boxing is the Pig-Pen of Olympic sports—unrepentantly dirty in a broad, cartoonish fashion, enveloped in a cloud of filth so dense as to be visible to the naked eye.

Yesterday, Azerbaijani fighter Teymur Mammadov won a fight that he should have lost after the referee inexplicably refused to issue a warning that would have disqualified Mammadov in the third round. Mammadov’s befuddled Belarusian opponent refused to leave the ring after hearing the decision, and nobody could blame him. “Boy, great system, great job, guys,” said an incredulous Teddy Atlas on NBC. “You’re destroying this sport. Making it a joke.”

The Mammadov decision is just the latest in a week’s worth of Olympic boxing scandals. A few days earlier, an Azerbaijani boxer named Magomed Abdulhamidov won a fight in which he was knocked down five times by his Japanese opponent in the third round. (The decision was later overturned, and the referee was sent home.) There have been other questionable decisions, too: India’s Sumit Sangwan’s disputed loss to a Brazilian fighter; another Indian, Manoj Kumar, losing to Briton Thomas Stalker; American Errol Spence’s since-overturned loss to India’s Krishan Vikas; Cuban fighter Juan Larduet’s loss to Italy’s Clemente Russo. Eat your heart out, badminton.

It’s been fun listening to the excitable Atlas try to process all of this. The boxing analyst erupted after Abdulhamidov was awarded the decision after repeatedly falling to the canvas, yelling “Unbelievable! That’s what the referee wanted to do! He wanted to save that fighter! Incredible.” After the Mammadov fight, Atlas said, “I’m going to start keeping a bucket here near ringside, because I want to throw up.”

Some of this crookedness appears to have been the result of a bribery scheme allegedly orchestrated by the nation of Azerbaijan. In September, BBC Newsnight reported that Azerbaijani officials had offered $9 million to international boxing officials to secure at least two gold medals for their nation’s fighters. Once the scheme was exposed, everyone just assumed that it was defunct. But this is boxing, where sunlight is no disinfectant. Exposing this scheme, it seems, made everyone aware of the sport’s festering wounds without doing anything to fix them.

Of course, this doesn’t account for the other, non-Azerbaijani scandals. Are they due to other bribery attempts that haven’t yet been detected? Are the referees just badly trained? Is the entire, multi-billion-dollar Olympics super-structure simply a complex mechanism by which the International Olympic Committee has contrived to make Teddy Atlas vomit into a bucket?

As I’ve come back to over and over when talking about everything from the badminton scandal to the tiebreaker rules in gymnastics, the problem here is the decentralized way in which the Olympics are managed. The IOC functions as an umbrella organization that convenes and promotes the Olympics but has little to do with the day-to-day management of the sports played there. Instead, each sport is supervised by a separate international federation, and each federation observes different rules. The IOC can’t do very much to demand that these organizations amend their rulebooks or change their ways. The impulse for reform has to come from within.

In the aftermath of the Mammadov fight yesterday, Atlas referred to an Al Pacino movie called … And Justice for All, in which Pacino plays a crusading lawyer determined to reform a corrupt system. “And he goes into the courtroom, and he starts losing it,” Atlas remembered, getting the spirit of the scene correct if not nailing the exact transcript. “He starts screaming, and the judge says ‘You’re out of order.’ And Al Pacino says, ‘No! You’re out of order! You’re out of order! This whole damn place is out of order!’ That’s kind of how I feel about these Olympics right now.”