Five-Ring Circus

Are Olympic Boxing Judges Corrupt, Incompetent, or Both?

Vladimir Nikitin (left) of Russia celebrates his victory over Michael John Conlan of Ireland in the boxing men’s bantam (56 kilogram) quarterfinals on Tuesday in Rio de Janeiro.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After a number of questionable decisions at the 2016 Olympics, the International Boxing Association says it has pulled an unnamed number of judges from the remainder of the competition. Though the AIBA says that “less than a handful of the decisions were not at the level expected,” the results in Rio de Janeiro have resurrected familiar questions about corruption in amateur boxing. As straight-talking Irish bantamweight Michael Conlan put it after losing a decision to a Russian fighter: “They’re fucking cheats. They’re paying everybody. Amateur boxing stinks from the core right to the top.”

By all accounts, Conlan dominated his semifinal fight against Vladimir Nikitin on Tuesday, though that was not reflected on the judges’ scorecards. Just a few hours earlier, U.S. boxer Gary Russell lost his light-middleweight quarterfinal to Uzbekistan’s Fazliddin Gaibnazarov in a split decision, despite dominating the second and third rounds. According to the Guardian, U.S. assistant coach Kay Koroma called the AIBA “disgusting.”

“You got to wonder is this what’s really happening,” Koroma said. “Have they already made who is going to be an Olympic medalist? I’m starting to believe [AIBA] are doing something.”

On Monday, judges handed Russian heavyweight Evgeny Tischenko a 29–28 win over Kazakhstan’s Vassiliy Levit in a gold-medal bout, a decision that was booed heavily by the crowd and shocked Levit. “In my head I was thinking I won. The coaches were quite happy,” Levit said, according to the Associated Press’ Tim Dahlberg, who wrote in a column that “it was clear to almost anyone in the arena that Levit had done enough to win the fight.”

And on Sunday, Canadian welterweight Arthur Biyarslanov lost a split decision to Germany’s Artem Harutyunyan in a preliminary bout. “When they said split decision I was almost afraid,” Biyarslanov told the National Post. “Split decision? I thought I won unanimously. But it was the judge’s call and you can’t do anything about it unless you knock them out cold.” Boxing Canada director Daniel Trepanier was equally dissatisfied: “In my mind Arthur didn’t lose that fight,” he told the Post.

Unlike Conlan, neither Levit nor Biyarslanov blamed corruption directly, though Biyarslanov did take to Facebook to say he had been “robbed.”

Evgeny Tishchenko of Russia celebrates winning the gold medal after the men’s heavyweight 91kg next to Vassiliy Levit of Kazakhstan on Monday.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

In an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, AIBA executive board member Tom Virgets essentially argued that AIBA’s problem isn’t corruption, but its own dumb judging criteria. Per the AP, here’s his explanation of why Russia’s Tischenko was awarded a victory over Kazakhstan’s Levit:

Virgets felt Tishchenko threw more scoring blows to the proper target areas and did more quality punching on the inside, which he claimed is easier to see when watching from the judges’ seats at ringside. He claimed many of Levit’s big, exciting punches “didn’t count” because they landed “across the side of the head” and weren’t proper scoring blows.

Virgets also said Levit initiated “the majority of the infringement of the rules during the bout,” including holding and head contact. Levit repeatedly got inside on Tishchenko, smothering the towering Russian before he could even throw a punch.

“So those combined, obviously in the judges’ mind, it was more important than the physical dominance that (Levit) was showing through infringement woes and lack of quality blows,” Virgets said.

But Virgets also said Levit clearly trounced Tishchenko in the judging criteria of competitiveness, the most visible area to fans. “No doubt about it, the Kazakh boxer showed he wanted to win more than the Russian boxer,” Virgets said.

Do AIBA’s fan-unfriendly judging rules make sense? “We’ll evaluate and get better,” Virgets said.

Based on the history of Olympic boxing, it seems like it won’t actually get better, no matter what rules AIBA does or doesn’t change. A Guardian report from earlier this month quoted an anonymous senior boxing official as saying, “there was ‘no doubt’ some of the judges and referees in Rio ‘will be corrupted.’ ” The Guardian alleged that in the runup to the Olympics, corrupt amateur boxing officials, “directed to score bouts in a certain way for a variety of reasons,” used “hand or head signals to manipulate judges at the end of each round so they knew from which corner to select the winner.” AIBA has denied the charges.

The Guardian story, written by Owen Gibson, is an excellent primer on Olympic boxing’s history of corruption, bribery, and match-fixing, including the notorious fight at the 1988 Games in Seoul when Roy Jones Jr. lost to South Korea’s Park Si-hun despite landing 86 punches to Park’s 32. In 1997, the IOC declared there was no evidence of corruption in the boxing competitions at the Seoul Olympics. Logic and reporting by the Guardian among other places suggests otherwise.

In 2011, the BBC reported that Azerbaijan paid millions of dollars to a group affiliated with AIBA in exchange for a promise of two boxing gold medals at the 2012 games in London. The president of AIBA called those claims “totally untrue and ridiculous.” (Azerbaijan ultimately won two bronze medals in London.)

While payoffs are definitely in the realm of possibility, the AP’s Dahlberg points out that there could be a much simpler explanation for the bizarre results in Rio. “Judging fights is more art than science,” he writes. “What one judge sees another might not even notice. Incompetence can also play a part. So can favoring fighters for reasons other than what they do in the ring.”

Based on Virgets’ remarks, AIBA is favoring the incompetence narrative—“We’re not match-fixing, we’re just bad at our jobs!”—but given the sport’s checkered Olympic history, it feels ridiculous to choose one or the other. Is Olympic boxing corrupt or are the judges incompetent? The only right answer is: Yes.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.