On Sunday, amateur boxing’s governing body elected Gafur Rakhimov to be its new president, all but daring the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to knock the sport off the schedule for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Rakhimov defeated his only opponent for the AIBA presidency, Soviet-era Kazakh boxing legend Serik Konakbaev, by winning 86 of the 134 valid votes cast during the AIBA congress in Moscow on November 3. Konakbaev was allowed to run for the position by fiat of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled on October 30 that the AIBA had to allow Konakbaev to contest the body’s presidency. Konakbaev has been kept off the ballot on a technicality, leaving Rakhimov — who had been the AIBA’s interim president since January — alone in the race. CAS’ intervention, however, is now itself a mere technicality.
Rakhimov, who has been described by the U.S. Treasury Department as “one of Uzbekistan’s leading criminals” — an accusation he vehemently denies — takes charge of the AIBA at a critical time for the sport.
No stranger to corruption accusations itself, the IOC has been particularly displeased with the state of amateur boxing. Following heavy criticism stemming from controversial calls made by AIBA judges and referees at the 2016 Rio Games, the IOC has increased pressure on to AIBA to reform itself.
On October 3, after Rakhimov had been announced as the sole eligible candidate for the AIBA presidency, the IOC’s executive board expressed “extreme concern with the grave situation” within the AIBA, with direct reference to the pending presidential election.
“Such behavior is affecting not just the reputation of AIBA and boxing but of sport in general,” the IOC went on. If the AIBA failed to properly address 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.”
As I noted last week, the implication was clear: “the IOC is considering axing boxing from the Olympic schedule if the AIBA cannot clean up its act.”
In his first statement as AIBA president, Rakhimov lauded the AIBA’s “truly democratic process.” He said the election had given “the entire Boxing world a boost of positive energy,” while also acknowledging “it is no secret that we have been battling with challenges on many fronts. And we are still facing certain pressures.”
Rakhimov said the body needed to focus on the “future of AIBA in the Olympics and the Future of AIBA as an organization.” After noting “huge progress” made by the AIBA, Rakhimov extended what he called an “olive branch” to the IOC: “We have heard you, we have been listening to you and we have been learning a lot from you.”
The IOC, responding to Rakhimov’s election, repeated its “grave” concern in several areas including judging, anti-doping and governance and stated that previous IOC decisions — namely the “reservation of the right to review the inclusion of boxing on the program of both the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024, and freezing of all contacts with AIBA” — remain in place.
The IOC plans to evaluate the matter in full at its next Executive Board meeting in Tokyo, starting on November 30.
Sean Ingle, a senior sports columnist for The Guardian, noted that it’s “misleading” to speak of boxing being banned from Tokyo: “That is not going to happen. This is about the fight for the soul of the sport – not the sport itself – and the prospect of a new governing body.”
The IOC could certainly suspend cooperation with the AIBA, which would be a huge financial loss for the organization. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that an alternative governing body couldn’t step in, take the check and organize the necessary lead-up bouts. As Duncan Mackay, editor of the insidethegames.biz website, wrote, “Instead, a new organization could be formed to help the IOC plan and organize qualifying tournaments for the Games.”
Steve Bunce, writing for The Independent, didn’t pull any punches: “It is hard to comprehend the levels of arrogance, stupidity and utter disbelief at the permanent appointment of Gafur Rakhimov over the weekend in Moscow to the number one position inside the [AIBA].”
“I just hope the fight for power, control, and the hearts and minds of the sport is not too bloody,” he concluded.
Konakbaev, for his part, hasn’t thrown in the towel. “This is not the end but the start of a movement to reform the world governing body and save boxing. Round one is over, the bell for round two is chiming,” he said after losing the election.