Aug. 5, 2012: Fixed Fights and Olympic Medals

Because this post will contain somewhat controversial statements about the ongoing competition in London, and in particular about the boxing competitions, let me preface it with a brief disclaimer. I am from the United States and have no vested interest in seeing any other particular country win medals at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. As you will note in my below comments regarding controversial judgments in the Olympics, none of the 2012 examples I name have anything to do with U.S. participants, just to demonstrate the lack of any biases. In 2006, however, I earned the rank of black belt in Tae-Kwon-Do, and I conducted significant cross-training in boxing in pursuit of that title. It is with that experience and expertise that I approach much of the content of this post.

Olympic boxing has been in a tailspin ever since the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. During a heated argument at the Games, Vladimir Gordienko of the 1988 Olympic boxing executive committee told American officials that “You will lose 5-0 to the Bulgarian.” Michael Carbajal of the U.S. subsequently lost a 5-0 decision to Bulgaria’s Ivailo Marinov. Even more controversial was Roy Jones Jr. losing a decision to South Korea’s Park Si-Hun, with the implication that the fight was given to the host country despite wide recognition of Jones as the superior fighter. The latter loss is widely regarded as one of the worst in boxing history, as Jones scored at least two punches to Si-Hun for every one that hit him. The three judges who named Si-Hun the winner were suspended, and when referee Aldo Leoni was forced to raise Si-Hun’s arm after the fight, he whispered to Jones that “I can’t believe they’re doing this to you.” Even Si-Hun recognized the travesty, raising Jones’ arm himself to denote the true winner during the award ceremony.

It was little wonder, after that debacle, that officials would desire a more precise way to tally successful punches. So with Jones’ loss as the most blatant in a string of stunningly awful decisions, amateur boxing switched to a computerized scoring system in 1992, a 20-year program that will end this year. Most commentators believe that this scoring system has contributed to declining amateur boxing quality, as the skills necessary to succeed as a professional do not work as an amateur. Points are awarded, in general, only if (1) a scoring punch is landed to the head or body for one point, or (2) the opposing fighter is given a warning for a rule violation. A fighter can also be disqualified for receiving three warnings during a bout, and loses for being knocked down three times in a round or four times in a fight.

Power is irrelevant for tallying up the number of scoring blows, and even a single knockdown is so rare that it typically only happens when one boxer is completely dominating the other, particularly since there are only three rounds in amateur fights instead of the 15 in professional boxing. Punches to the body are often not counted, as it is difficult to discern whether or not they were blocked. Worse yet, combinations typically result in only a single point being awarded, particularly since judges are hardly quick enough with the buttons to keep up with the punching pace of the world’s best boxers.

All this means that the most successful amateur fighters are those who land a punch or two and then move away, then just avoid excessive confrontation once they have built up a lead. (See a more detailed description of the rules here.) As Carlos Suarez of Trinidad said after losing a 16-6 decision, “The problem with amateur boxing is it’s tag boxing. He was throwing slap punches, getting points. He would have beaten me in a game of tag but not in a boxing match.”

Even likening Olympic boxing to a schoolyard game of tag, however, does not explain the baffling events of the past few days. Consider, for instance, Jose Larduet of Cuba and Iran’s Ali Mazaheri, who sparred in the heavyweight division on Wednesday. I say “sparred” because a few minutes into the match, German referee Frank Scharmach inexplicably started tossing about warnings for virtually any contact. (Referees are instructed to warn boxers for excessively holding the opponent, particularly when it is done to prevent either fighter from throwing punches in order to stall the clock. The Larduet-Mazaheri bout, however, featured little more than the usual momentary clinches between opponents.) Larduet was warned once in the first round, then Mazaheri, who finished the first round with a two-point lead, astonishingly received three consecutive warnings in the second. The final warning resulted in an automatic disqualification, ending his participation in the Olympics. Mazaheri refused to stand next to the judge, choosing instead to graciously congratulate Larduet’s coaches and then exit the ring. Mazaheri will surely be punished by the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) for abandoning the ceremonial victory declaration, but who can blame him? The man’s Olympic dreams were cut short by a shoddy official rather than his opponent’s fists, and the crowd applauded his refusal to acknowledge the judge or the announcement.

Far more damning, though, was bantamweight fight earlier in the day between Japan’s Satoshi Shimizu and #2 seed Magomed Abdulhamidov of Azerbaijan.

The referee fixed this fight. No other words describe what transpired.

For much of the first two rounds, Abdulhamidov controlled the bout, as most analysts would have expected of the favorite. He scored a number of clean blows to his opponent, and Shimizu wound up sacrificing his tremendous size advantage, ducking toward the smaller Abdulhamidov for much of the second round in an attempt to get better angles for strikes at his opponent. It didn’t work, and his head was an easy target for several minutes, so he entered the third round losing 12-5.

But in the third round, Shimizu annihilated Abdulhamidov, slamming him in the head with one punch after another, to the point where Abdulhamidov struggled to even remain standing. One clean shot after another struck the favorite, and the fans roared as Shimizu exerted total dominance over the elimination bout.

This is where things got very strange. According to the above linked amateur boxing rules, any time a boxer falls to the canvas as a result of the opponent’s strikes, the referee is supposed to give him the standard ten-count, after which time the boxer loses if he is still unable to continue. (Even if he immediately returns to his feet, the referee must at least count to eight — hence the term “standing eight count” that is sometimes used.) Each such knockdown also results in four points being awarded to the opponent, and a fighter who is knocked down three times in a round or four times in a bout automatically loses. But while Shimizu knocked down Abdulhamidov five times in the third round alone, referee Ishanguly Meretnyyazov of Turkmenistan refused to ever give him a count, instead just telling him to get up each time. (Most reports say there were six knockdowns, but I counted five at the time and cannot find any video with six. The additional stoppage seems to have been Meretnyyazov’s attempt to provide a break in the fight before Abdulhamidov could fall again.) Abdulhamidov received just one warning for holding his opponent. Worse yet, even though Abdulhamidov spent virtually the entire third round on the canvas, as several commentators put it, he was somehow also awarded ten phantom points over the course of those three minutes (the round was called a relatively even 12-10 favoring Shimizu, with his two extra points coming only from the warning), to retain a hollow victory in a 22-17 decision.

Go ahead, watch the video of the last 1:22 of the bout. See if I’m crazy for calling the fight fixed.

As Shimizu said, “I was shocked about the result. He fell down so many times. Why didn’t I win? I don’t understand.” He also told reporters that the referee should have stopped the fight, as Abdulhamidov was obviously groggy from all the abuse he took in the third round.

His coaches agreed, and Shimizu’s corner immediately filed an official protest contesting the result. AIBA waited to hear the case until the day’s bouts were concluded, but after an hour-long deliberation, the organization took the nearly unprecedented step of overturning the judges’ decision, granting Shimizu his hard-earned victory. As AIBA representatives put it,

– The boxer from Azerbaijan fell down six (6) times during the 3rd round. According to our rules, the Referee should have counted at least three (3) times. In this case, following the AIBA Technical & Competition Rules, the decision should have been RSC (Referee Stop Contest);

– Therefore the protest lodged by the Japanese corner is accepted and the result of this bout overturned.

Just to illustrate how rare it is to see a decision overturned, Mazaheri’s nonsense loss to Larduet was firmly upheld upon appeal, even though Scharmach, the referee, was promptly suspended for his poor officiating. (Astonishingly, though, Scharmach subsequently served as a judge in a controversial decision on Friday night, after his suspension took effect.) Even the stunning decision that went against Roy Jones Jr., an appalling call that forever changed the amateur boxing world, was allowed to stand. So the fact that AIBA had no choice but to correct the result of Shimizu’s fight shows just how obvious the fix was. Meretnyyazov, too, “is on his way back home” according to AIBA. Azerbaijani technical official Aghajan Abiyev was also removed from the competition for “a number of breaches” to the federation’s code of conduct, although those breaches have not been disclosed.

But is this really justice? Probably not. You see, there’s more to this story. Back in September 2011, the BBC reported that an Azeri national paid $9 million to World Series Boxing (WSB) competition, which is conducted by AIBA, purportedly to ensure that Azerbaijan would secure two gold medals in boxing at the London Games. As Anna Adams and Meirion Jones of BBC Newsnight reported about WSB chief operating officer Ivan Khodabakhsh,

The insiders said Mr Khodabakhsh told them that a secret deal had been done to secure funding from Azerbaijan in return for manipulation of the Olympic boxing tournament to guarantee gold medals for Azerbaijani fighters.

One insider told Newsnight: “Ivan boasted to a few of us that there was no need to worry about World Series Boxing having the coin to pay its bills. As long as the Azeris got their medals, WSB would have the cash.”

Another said that Mr Khodabakhsh came in and said: “We are safe now – Azerbaijan came in – we have to give them medals for that.”

“He was talking about gold medals in London in return for millions of dollars of secret payments,” the insider added. “Medals are being sold so blatantly it’s amazing.”

AIBA confirmed that such a contribution was made to support their efforts, but denied the allegations of match-fixing, calling them “preposterous and utterly untrue.” Analysts all around questioned how it would even be possible to fix an entire event. Yet look where we are. We just saw one of the strangest decisions of all time, which resulted in one of Azerbaijan’s top medal threats being handed an incomprehensible victory. (Azeri officials, it should be noted, didn’t even bother to attend, instead illegally scalping their free tickets.) Meretnyyazov, the referee responsible for the non-knockdowns, was suspended, but the judges who awarded ten phantom points to Abdulhamidov as he lay on the ground face no retribution. No wonder commentator Bob Papa shouted, in response to the decision, “Everyone here should look at themselves and realize why this sport is considered a joke at this point.”

He’s right, of course. But oh, if only the 2012 Olympics’ scandal was limited to boxing.

Consider the more-publicized absurdity surrounding the badminton competition. China’s Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei, who were seeded second in the entire women’s doubles tournament, suffered a surprising loss in the group stage, which made them the second of the two teams to survive the four-team Group D, not first. More importantly, it also put them on the same side of the tournament bracket as the top qualifiers from Groups A and C, and the threat of facing the fearsome Qing and Yunlei prior to the finals would have reduced those teams’ chances of winning a medal. So in the final matches in Groups A and C, the top two teams in the standings attempted to intentionally lose their respective matches in order to finish second, not first, hoping to avoid being on the same side of the draw as Qing and Yunlei. The matches were downright appalling, with fans openly booing the competitors as they intentionally served directly into the net over and over again. Take a look at some of the highlights from the match between fellow Chinese players Xiaoli Wang and Yu Yang, and their South Korean rivals Jung Eun-kyung and Kim Ha-na, a match in which the longest rally consisted of just four strokes:

(An alternative video, which the WordPress API will not permit me to embed into this post, can be viewed here.)

In the end, four of the 16 teams in the group stage were thrown out of the Olympics by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) for their unsportsmanlike conduct, sending the quarterfinals’ field of eight into complete disarray. The two disqualified teams in Group A — Xiaoli and Yu of China, and Jung and Kim of South Korea — and the two disqualified teams in Group C — Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jung of South Korea, and Greysia Polii and Meiliana Jauhari of Indonesia — had all of their matches changed to forfeit losses, ultimately resulting in the only remaining teams from each group being granted berths into the next round. Because of the tournament format, the four teams restored to the tournament had to play each other in the quarterfinals, and the two surviving teams, Valeria Sorokina and Nina Vislova of Russia, and Alex Bruce and Michele Li of Canada, both lost their respective semifinal matches. The Russian and Canadian teams played one another for the bronze yesterday morning, following the write-up of this post.

The removal of Xiaoli and Yu was especially severe, as they entered the tournament as the defending world champions and the clear favorites to stand atop the podium. Xiaoli complained that the round-robin format in the group stage, which is similar to that of the World Cup in soccer, encouraged intentional losses, and her partner Yu further shocked the badminton world by announcing her retirement from the sport immediately after the decision. Yu nonetheless tried to defend her actions, though, writing on her microblog,

We were simply injured, simply chose to abandon the match within the rules. Simply to play better in the second phase of competition, the knockout rounds. Four years of preparation and hard work with injury, and they say it’s gone and our right to compete is gone. You mercilessly ruined our dream. It’s unforgivable.

But as some analysts argue, it’s not the first time that Chinese badminton teams have tried to tinker with competition results. Chinese officials accepted the ruling and demanded apologies from the team members, while South Korea unsuccessfully appealed its teams’ respective disqualifications and Indonesia withdrew its own appeal.

Perhaps worse yet, the coaches of the teams in question are now under further scrutiny for their role in their athletes’ failure to compete. Chinese coach Li Yongbo explicitly accepted responsibility for his team’s behavior, and while the other teams have fervently denied any culpability, the International Olympic Committee has demanded a probe into all of the coaches for disqualified teams. The BWF has also vowed to review every match of the round-robin stage to assess whether any other contests may have been manipulated. It was enough to completely overshadow otherwise spirited competition, culminating in a gold-medal match with China’s Tian and Zhao facing Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiiwa of Japan yesterday morning.

While the four disqualified teams violated the spirit of competition, at least they didn’t stomp on the letter of the law. The same cannot be said of Australian rower Joshua Booth. After his men’s eight team finished dead last out of the six teams in their final on Wednesday, Booth’s coach warned the team not to abuse alcohol even though their competition season had just ended. They didn’t listen, instead choosing to drown their sorrows in alcohol. At around 10:00 p.m., Booth left on his own and, still wearing his tracksuit from the rowing competition, decided that it would be a good idea to break some windows. Police arrested Booth at 1:40 a.m. for smashing two storefront windows with a large planter box.

While in police custody, Booth passed out and hit his head, so he was taken to the local hospital as a precautionary measure and his questioning was postponed until last Friday. It was then that investigators learned he started rampaging not because he was upset at his results, but because, in his drunken stupor, he thought he was back in Australia.

In any case, Booth ashamedly apologized for his actions and offered to pay for the repairs, an offer that his victims accepted. He was also removed from Australia’s national team and promptly sent back to his home country; Booth may face further sanctions as well. So when British cyclist Bradley Wiggins later announced on Twitter that he was “blind drunk,” it should have come as little surprise when IOC spokesman Mark Adams responded with a statement instructing athletes to “drink wisely.”

All this has put a damper on a momentous occasion that also featured U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps’ record-breaking 21 medals and record-shattering 17 golds prior to Saturday’s 4×100 meter medley relay final, as well as his unprecedented three straight golds in both the 200 meter individual medley and the 100 meter butterfly. Former Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, now 77 years of age, personally congratulated Phelps after seeing her 48-year-old record of 18 medals fall. Yet in the eyes of many, the London Games will be remembered more for disgraceful boxing judging and badminton players throwing matches than it will for Phelps’ triumph.

It’s enough to make you wish that NBC airing a woman’s naked breast on an instant replay was the biggest scandal of the competition. During the U.S. vs. Spain water polo match, the commentators noted that there was “a lot of suit-grabbing going on under water,” at which point the network aired an underwater shot of one player yanking down another’s swimsuit. No wonder everything else at the Olympics has been tape-delayed.

If you really want to see the wardrobe malfunction for yourself, you can view the video here. (It’s not safe for work — even if it’s safe enough for a national telecast.) Go ahead, watch the momentary nipple slip, then sit in a corner in shame.

Other articles of interest:
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NASA invests $1.1 billion in space shuttle replacements to launch as early as 2015
Astronomers hear ‘death cry’ of star shredded by black hole
How to escape from a black hole
How Bias Heats Up the Warming Debate


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