The International Boxing Association voted on Wednesday to allow professionals to compete at the Olympics.
The decision at the “extraordinary congress” in Switzerland follows an earlier vote that removes headgear from male competitors, which may make the games more fan-friendly in Brazil but, like the pros-versus joes edict, risks putting boxers in greater danger. With the sport’s popularity waning in the West, and the Olympics nearly ejecting wrestling from the games several years back, the desperation measures aim to stoke public interest in the suffering sport.
The body voted 84-4 in an overwhelming show of support to let the pros go to Rio.
But professionals past and present pan the move by margins that rival the disparity in Switzerland.
“Now all of a sudden, you get a world champion or somebody in the top 10 as a professional now going against basically an amateur, somebody with a lack of experience,” Lennox Lewis, a super heavyweight gold medalist at the 1988 Seoul games, explained. “I don’t look at that as being fair.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Mike Tyson, a late-career Lewis foe who turned pro after failing to make the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, opined. “It’s foolish, and some of the pro fighters are going to get beat by the amateurs.”
Wladimir Klitschko, Manny Pacquiao, Carl Froch, Saul Alvarez, and other high-profile pros say no to Rio.
The professional game, as Tyson alludes to, differs greatly from the amateur one. Prize fighting isn’t point fighting. In the Olympics, fighters compete in three, three-minute rounds (men) and four, two-minute rounds (women) and do so several times in a short period of time in the tournament should they advance. Scoring favors the quick boxer who can touch his opponent many times over the powerful pugilist who can rock his opponent with one punish.
So, seasoned prize fighters risk hurting younger developing fighters. But the amateurs accustomed to the Olympic-style scoring risk exposing head-hunting pugilists for pay. Perhaps more so than amateurs, the pro game may endure damage through the policy. Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Oscar De La Hoya became box office draws from their first professional fights through winning Olympic gold. With the possibility of pros overshadowing the amateurs at the games, boxing risks obscuring fresh faces that quadrennially inject new life into the sport.
The decision strikes as a strange one also because tournaments deciding national teams have already been held. Some spots remain open but what if, say, Andre Ward lobbied to fight at 165 in Rio when teenager Charles Conwell already won the spot? This may not happen here, and Ward seems to want more money and not less to fight, but one could envision this happening somewhere. It’s boxing, after all, a corrupt sport never much adhering to Marquess of Queenberry rules outside of the ring. The International Boxing Association (the AIBA) vows to hold a special tournament for pros, but who knows how they make their way to Brazil> The young Clevelander Conwell, brother to eight, exclaimed after qualifying, “One of my biggest dreams came true!” Does not the eleventh-hour alteration of the rules threaten to steal the dreams of guys like him? The rule change goes into effect immediately. But without national bodies changing their own rules it remains unclear if pros can go to this summer’s games, in some route beyond the proposed tournament, without derailing the dreams of amateurs believing they have already made their nations’ teams. As the late rule change demonstrates, the people who rule boxing aren’t big on rules.
“This is a momentous occasion for AIBA, for Olympic Boxing, and for our sport as a whole, and represents another great leap forward in the evolution of boxing,” AIBA President Dr Ching-Kuo Wu maintained in a statement. “We have embraced reform at AIBA over the past decade, making historic changes that have shaped the present health of boxing and precipitated its ongoing surge in popularity worldwide. This move will ensure the empowerment of National Federations and enhance all future competitions including the Olympic Games. Our mission is to continue to make brave decisions in the best interest of our boxers and for the good for the sport.”
Outside of the AIBA’s Extraordinary Congress, critics find this contention, well, extraordinary.