Boxing is all about the dramatic showdown. A fight between champions isn’t just about winning a title, it’s about pride and history, the settling of a grudge or the setting of a record. The sport of boxing — in both its amateur (i.e. Olympic) and professional iterations — is no stranger to corruption, crime, and controversy, so it’s little surprise that the sport’s Olympic future is entangled in all three, with two Central Asians in the ring.
Boxing made its Olympic debut at the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri and has been staged at every Summer Olympics since, with the exception of the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden, where the sport was illegal at the time. In terms of medal counts, the United States sits at the top (114 medals as of 2016), followed by Cuba (73), the United Kingdom (56), Italy (47), and the Soviet Union with 51 medals by the time of its dissolution in 1991. But only a few places further down the list sits Kazakhstan, with 22 boxing medals since its Olympic debut as an independent nation in the 1996 Atlanta Games. A little further down is Uzbekistan, with 14 boxing medals since its own debut in Atlanta.
The sport’s future at the Olympics, however, is on the line as the International Boxing Association (AIBA) is scheduled to select its next president during the organization’s November 2-3 congress in Moscow. The result was thrown into doubt by a ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which forced the AIBA to recognize Serik Konakbaev, a Soviet-era Kazakh boxing legend, as an eligible candidate for the AIBA presidency.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
On October 1, the AIBA had declared its interim president, Gafur Rakhimov — an Uzbek businessman and a previous vice president of the AIBA — as the only eligible candidate. The AIBA argued at the time that the necessary letters of support for Konakbaev — who is a vice president of the AIBA as well as the president of the Asian Boxing Confederation — from at least 20 national boxing federations had not been received in time at the AIBA headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. The deadline had been Sunday, September 23.
Konakbaev made an appeal to CAS, arguing that the last of his letters of support arrived on Monday, September 24 and that under Swiss law, the legal filing date for a deadline that falls on a Sunday, a nonbusiness day, is the following Monday. The CAS agreed, ruling on October 30 that while “the AIBA Election Committee treated all candidates equally and acted in good faith… Serik Konakbayev should be allowed to participate in the election for the role of AIBA President.”
The AIBA acknowledged the CAS’ decision, writing in a press released that “AIBA is pleased to welcome an additional candidate to participate in the election for the role of AIBA President.” The AIBA release highlighted CAS’ comment about equal treatment, and quoted Rakhimov as welcoming the decision: “I am pleased to welcome another candidate and, as I have said before on numerous occasions, for AIBA it is good when we have competition especially at the highest levels, and now we can let the AIBA membership decide who they believe is the best leader to guide our sport out of financial difficulty and towards a sustainable future.”
The two men are set to face off during the AIBA’s congress this weekend in Moscow.
Whoever the next AIBA president is, his legacy could be quickly determined. At stake is whether boxing appears at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) warned the AIBA on October 3, after its announcement of Rakhimov as the only candidate for the body’s presidency, that if it failed to resolve its governance issues, “the existence of boxing on the Olympic program and even the recognition of AIBA as an International Federation recognized by the IOC are under threat.”
“The Executive Board of the IOC today expressed its ongoing extreme concern with the grave situation within the International Boxing Association (AIBA) and its current governance,” the ruling body said in a statement. “These include the circumstances of the establishment of the election list and the misleading communication within the AIBA membership regarding the IOC’s position.”
The implication was clear: the IOC is considering axing boxing from the Olympic schedule if the AIBA cannot clean up its act.
The AIBA has been a target for IOC ire for some time but the latest round of trouble stems from the fate of previous AIBA president, Wu Ching-kuo of Taiwan (Chinese Taipei, in official Olympic parlance). Wu had been AIBA president from 2006 to 2017, when he resigned under a cloud of suspicion and allegations of financial misdeeds. According to the Guardian at the time, Wu was accused of of overseeing the accumulation of 15 million Swiss francs ($14.9 million) of debt by the AIBA. He was also accused of trying to depose members of the AIBA’s executive committee “who challenged his leadership.”
Calls for Wu to resign had sounded after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. At the games a series of controversial match decisions sounded the alarm of corruption. Irish boxer Michael Conlan was judged to have lost to Russian Vladimir Nikitin in a match many believed ought to have gone the other way. “AIBA are just corrupt. They’ve robbed me of my Olympic dream,” Conlan told reporters after the match. “Obviously Russia can’t dope this time so they are obviously paying the judges a lot more,” he said. The Russian doping scandal was at its height in the summer of 2016.
The Conlan scandal was followed by another dubious match result: Russian Evgeny Tishchenko beat Kazakhstan’s Vassiliy Levit for the gold in the final heavyweight match. As Tishchenko was declared the winner, the arena filled with boos.
The U.S. head boxing coach told the Guardian at the time, “It’s the worst games since 1988 when Roy Jones got robbed in the final.” He also apparently fingered Uzbekistan’s boxer as being favored. Another U.S. coach was quoted as saying, “I’m starting to believe they are doing something. It’s disgusting.”
In October 2016, the AIBA suspended every single referee and judge that had officiated at Rio.
Wu was suspended in October 2017 and resigned the next month. The AIBA presidency was taken up by senior vice president Franco Falcinelli and then passed to Rakhimov in January 2018.
In December 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department had included Rakhimov in a list of individuals it claimed were linked to the “Thieves-in-Law.” The Thieves-in-Law (Vor v zakone, or more simply Vory, in Russian) in are a “Eurasian crime syndicate that has been linked to a long list of illicit activity across the globe,” as stated by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Director John E. Smith. According to Treasury, “ Rakhimov has been described as having moved from extortion and car theft to becoming one of Uzbekistan’s leading criminals and an important person involved in the heroin trade.”
Earlier that same month, the IOC had suspended payments to the AIBA and required the association to deliver a full report on how it planned to address issues in several areas, including governance, financial matters, anti-doping, judging, and refereeing. When that report was delivered, with Rakhimov as interim president, the IOC was “dissatisfied.”
Rakhimov has denied the allegations made against him, claiming in a recent interview that they were lied concocted by the previous Uzbek regime. He told the Guardian that the current Uzbek government “has provided official letters noting that these allegations are ‘unfounded’ and ‘untruthful.’”
As it stands, the future of Olympic boxing may rest on which of two Central Asians emerge victorious from this weekend’s AIBA election. Konakbaev — whose supporting federations include much of Europe — has promised to clean up the body’s, and thus the sport’s, reputation as well as its financials. Rakhimov has promised the same.