Teddy Atlas skeptical about latest attempt to clean up Olympic boxing
Teddy Atlas, the firebrand who for two decades has been tilting at Olympic boxing windmills like a forever frustrated Don Quixote, has been down what he called a “long and dark road” for so long that he no longer can muster much hope that the status quo of rampant corruption can ever be satisfactorily cleansed.
As proof that the latest announced effort to scrub away the layers of grime on a marginalized sport is likely nothing more than another dog-and-pony show, Atlas points out that the investigation of “possible” irregularities at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, headed by International Olympic Committee-appointed Richard McLaren, will enter its first phase in August. The Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo, postponed from 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be staged from July 23 through August 8.
“It’s like Santa Claus showing up after Christmas,” Atlas, who served as NBC’s Olympic boxing analyst from 2000 through 2012, said in claiming he was fired for having the temerity to publicly point out the blatant wrongdoing that has continued almost unabated since he called the bouts at his first Games, at Sydney, Australia, in 2000.
To the strongly opinionated Atlas, the task being undertaken by McLaren, a law professor at Western University in Ontario, Canada, who specializes in sports law, is akin to his being handed a squeegee and a pail of soapy water and told to disinfect Chernobyl after that Russian city’s nuclear meltdown made it radioactive and uninhabitable. McLaren’s credentials for taking on such a herculean chore are that he is the man who uncovered the full extent of Russian state-sponsored doping. How extensive was that? So much so that more than a thousand Russian athletes in 30 sports were demonstrably proven to have been part of a sophisticated doping program spanning several Olympiads.
But, despite assurances from many high-ranking IOC officials in Lausanne, Switzerland — where the IOC and AIBA are both headquartered — that the investigation will be far-reaching and result in many necessary changes if Olympic boxing is to survive and again thrive, words and actions don’t always mesh.
“I don’t know this guy McLaren from a hole in the wall, but I do know it’s hard to have faith in that system,” Atlas said. “We’ve (he includes his former NBC broadcast partner, blow-by-blow announcer Bob Papa) been screaming from the freakin’ rooftops since 2000 and nobody gave a crap. The corruption was rampant then and nothing had changed by 2012 in London, when I called my last Olympics. I piled up nothing but proof and I still lost my job.”
It is the contention of Atlas, who said he did not watch one round of the 2016 boxing competition from Rio, that his penchant for being bluntly honest infuriated then-AIBA president Dr. Ching-Kuo Wu of Taiwan and presumably detracted from NBC’s positive, nothing-wrong-here approach to televising the Olympics, into which it has sunk vast financial resources. In May of 2016, NBC Universal shelled out $7.75 billion for the exclusive broadcast rights to the six Olympiads from 2022 to 2032. That is a continuation of an association that began in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, with two other Olympic rights packages prior to the most recent deal totaling $7.88 billion.
Christopher McCloskey, Vice President of Communications for the NBC Sports Group, responded to Atlas’ charges with a statement that read, in part, “We met with AIBA and the IOC in Lausanne after London and I reviewed the London (boxing) tournament. AIBA took us through their plans to reform.”
Those must have been some really messed-up plans. What has happened since in the ongoing soap opera “As Olympic Boxing Turns”? Well, AIBA elected Gafur Rakhimov, who was under U.S. federal sanctions for suspected links to eastern European organized crime, president of the scandal-plagued organization. So seemingly toxic was Rakhimov that his presence as the top dog in AIBA prodded the IOC in 2018 to investigate Olympic boxing’s governance, debts and integrity, not surprising considering that, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, 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.”
AIBA was stripped of its Olympic status on June 24, 2019, which resulted in the IOC’s decision to orchestrate qualifying and final tournaments for the 2020 Tokyo Games, which of course were delayed until this summer by the pandemic. John Coates, the IOC vice president in charge of the Tokyo Olympics, insists everything will proceed on schedule with minimal health risks to participants and spectators, even though several of Japan’s top medical experts have advised against staging the Games. If Coates’ assurances prove to be inaccurate, the Tokyo Olympics will not take place and will be canceled instead of postponed again.
What would cancelation mean to the future of Olympic boxing, which already is in the cross-hairs of the IOC and even NBC, which relegated to fringe status the sport that made national heroes of such American gold medalists as Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya? No Olympic boxing from Rio was televised on over-the-air NBC, which accounts for around 90 percent of its total Olympic viewership. All the fights, including the gold medal ones involving Claressa Shields (who won) and Shakur Stevenson (who settled for silver), were on secondary outlets. Atlas said he thought NBC was attempting to “hide” Olympic boxing, and that (AIBA is) the most corrupt organization I’ve ever seen, and that’s a very powerful statement coming from me because I’ve been in this business 40-plus years and seen a lot of bad stuff.”
How bad was some of the “bad stuff” in Rio, which went unwitnessed by Atlas? Bad enough to draw numerous Teddy-sized complaints from others who can see well enough to distinguish between a merely controversial decision and an out-and-out stickup. Foremost among the dubious verdicts was the gold medal heavyweight bout, in which Kazakhstan’s Vassiliy Levit appeared to be a clear winner over Russia’s No. 1 seed and reigning world champion Evgeny Tischenko. When the decision for Tischenko was met with loud booing from spectators in Riocentro Pavilion 6, some noted the presence at ringside of IOC president Thomas Bach of Germany alongside someone he has described as his “good friend,” Russian president Vladimir Putin. Neither appeared distressed at the apparent injustice.
Make of that what you will, along with the fact that, of the original entry list of 389 Russian athletes for Rio, 271, including all 11 boxers, were cleared to compete by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), of which McLaren was an integral figure. Despite the fact that the entire Russian track and field team (68 athletes), 17 rowers and eight weightlifters were banned from competing, there was more than a little grumbling in other countries that 70 percent of the Russian delegation passing performance-enhancing-drugs muster was overly generous, given incontrovertible proof that virtually every Russian athlete competing in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, a pet project of Putin’s, had benefited from the administering of state-sanctioned PEDs.
On Aug. 17, 2016, AIBA, in what was widely seen to be in damage-control mode, acknowledged the raft of wacko decisions by five referees and judges and, a day later, reassigned executive director Karim Bouzidi and replaced him with Italy’s Franco Falcinelli, president of the European Boxing Confederation and the most senior vice president of AIBA’s executive board.
“The Olympic Games, of which boxing has been a part since 1904, represent the pinnacle of all sports,” a statement issued by AIBA read. “Since the beginning of Rio, 2016, AIBA has conducted over 250 bouts and remains fully committed to fair play in boxing, always seeking to act in the boxers’ best interests. The decisions taken emphasize that AIBA will not shy away from its responsibilities and will continue to ensure a level playing field and a fair and transparent sport. It is of paramount importance to protect our sport and its R&J (referees and judges) community whose integrity has been put into question.”
The gold medal that went to Tischenko over Levit might have been the worst decision since the USA’s Roy Jones Jr. beat the hell out of his South Korean opponent, Park Si-Hun, in the 156-pound gold medal bout in Seoul in 1988, only to be stunned when a 3-2 nod was announced for the home-country fighter. But was justice truly served by the suspensions of the Rio Five? Although the U.S. filed a protest on Jones’ behalf 33 years ago, it was not upheld and the three officials who voted for Si-Hun, although suspended, were quietly reinstated six months later. And despite AIBA’s preemptive strike to quell the furor in Rio, its official stance was that its officials had done nothing unethical. In any case, a rule had been instituted beforehand that no protests could be filed and thus no seemingly unjust outcomes overturned.
“With regard to corruption, we would like to strongly restate that unless tangible proof is put forward, not rumors, we will continue to use any means, including legal and disciplinary actions to protect our sport and its R&J community, whose integrity is constantly put into question,” the statement continued. “The organization will not be deterred by subjective judgments made by discontented parties.”
That haughty defiance, as espoused in the statement, flew in the face of numerous examples of visual evidence to the contrary. Although he was not involved in the Rio Olympics, Atlas makes no secret of his anger and befuddlement at what he witnessed in 2012 in London, when AIBA scarcely bothered to disguise its malfeasance.
Prior to that Opening Ceremony, the BBC found documents showing a $9 million bank transfer, funneled through Switzerland, to a boxing organization owned by AIBA, which strongly suggested that Azerbaijan, a mineral-rich country, was “buying” two gold medals in boxing.
“The story was never properly refuted,” Atlas explained. “There were a lot of lingering questions. What that told me was that Bob and I had to be alert. Our first fight, I mentioned the story in a journalistically responsible fashion. A lot of people would have stayed away from it, I know that, but I thought it would be irresponsible to stay away from it. So I said, `Look, this is out there, I’m not pointing fingers. All I’m saying is I’m aware and now you’re aware. Let the Games begin.’ And the Games began.”
They began with what Atlas said were “bad decisions. I mean, really bad decisions. I watched this guy from Japan (Satoshi Shimisu) knock down a guy from Azerbaijan (Magomed Abdulhamidev) seven times and the Azerbaijan guy’s point total kept going up! Bob and I were, like, `Can they really be this arrogant? This cold, this uncaring? Don’t these people have any sense of right and wrong, that they can do this in front of the whole world?”
Now we are here, and AIBA no longer can afford to play the no-one-can-dare-challenge-us card, even though the organization had to be brought kicking and screaming out of its shadowy past. Despite the long and tainted administrations of past presidents Dr. Anwar Chowdhry and Dr.Wu, AIBA presidential elections were won by Rakhimov and the current leader of the pack, Umar Kremlov, who on Dec. 12, 2020, became the first Russian to hold the top spot. Not that anyone’s nationality is necessarily a cause for apprehension, but Kremlov was involved in the administration of his country’s sports apparatus when some of the questionable goings-on were happening.
Given what most people already know, McLaren and his group of forensic experts from Harod Associates won’t have to be so many Sherlock Holmses or Columbos to find evidence of wrongdoing on the part of AIBA and maybe even the IOC. Of the roughly 90 members of the IOC’s hierarchy, more than a few of whom are titled royalty and have had their place at the Olympic table passed on by their forebears, some may have wielded influence in a self-serving manner at times. After being rejected four times on previous bids to host the Winter Olympics, Salt Lake City in 1995 was tapped as the site of the 2002 Games. It later was proven that, to seal the deal, bribes were offered and accepted by several IOC voters to cast favorable ballots for the Utah city.
It will be interesting to see just how free Team McLaren is to uncover truths that might have only a spadeful or two of dirt covering them instead of being deeply buried. For the time being, the professor is saying mostly encouraging things. We have, however, heard such vows before.
“Boxing has a long history of questionable activities,” McLaren said. “There have been multiple past investigations into the sport that have either not been completed or acted upon. It is time for boxing to turn the page, but it cannot do so without a full accounting of an alleged misconduct.
“Our team will conduct an independent investigation into the questions surrounding corruption or manipulation of sporting results during the Rio Olympic Games, identify the persons responsible and recommend the appropriate course of action.”
But McLaren’s encouraging words are at least a bit neutralized by his toss of a wilted bouquet in AIBA’s direction, the equivalent of allowing a fox to guard the henhouse.
“I wish to thank AIBA for their confidence and trust and for giving us the freedom and support to conduct a thorough and comprehensive independent investigation,” he continued. “They are looking to put some finality to the allegations that have plagued (Olympic) boxing for decades. My team has been given the independence to follow any and all leads to uncover the truth.”
Let it be stated here that everyone involved with AIBA and USA Boxing should not be tarred with the same brush. More than a few honest and earnest reformers have rowed against the tide of corruption for a long time, and perhaps their efforts may eventually be rewarded. We can only hope.
It would be sad, though, if the glory of what once was can’t be recalled should McLaren’s recommendations are not enacted or if this latest salvation project proves to be too little and too late. Consider these words from Sugar Ray Leonard, one of five gold medalists from the legendary 1976 U.S. Olympic boxing team in Montreal, upon the occasion of a 40-year reunion with his surviving teammates in June 2016 at the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend in Canastota, N.Y.
“If I could re-live anything, I would want to re-live that moment when I was on the medal stand,” Leonard said. “Those Olympics were the best time of my life; I was young and everything seemed so exciting.”
Not so exciting for other Olympic fighters is the excruciating pain of knowing they had done enough in the ring to come away with a medal, possibly even gold, but were jobbed by individuals who through nefarious means sought to profit from their misfortune.
“As long as there’s a cheery picture to present to millions of people, especially in America, it’ll continue,” Atlas told me in 2016 of his take on the future of the Olympics. “People love good stories and happy endings. As long as you have a Michael Phelps and the (U.S.) women’s gymnasts with gold medals around their necks – and those are good stories – a lot can be and is overlooked. A blind eye is turned. But it’s getting harder and harder to forget about the bad stuff, the corruption and the manipulation and the politics. The Olympics are supposed to be an escape from that. We have enough of that in government.
“When the Olympics are no longer an escape, enough to blind us to what the Olympic movement is meant to be but isn’t, then there will be no more Olympics.”