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Olympic boxing crisis: The biggest fight in the sport is battle to keep it in the Olympic Games

Boxing is on the brink of disaster as the sport faces being expelled from the Olympic movement; The IOC looks on course to withdraw recognition from international boxing federation IBA, while a new organisation, World Boxing has formed hoping to save the sport's place in the Olympics

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World Boxing was launched in a bid to ensure that the sport remains in the Olympic Games

The biggest fight in boxing right now is the battle to save the sport’s place in the Olympic Games.

It is not entirely out for the count, just yet, but Olympic boxing, without a dramatic intervention, appears to be on the way down.

As it stands, Paris 2024 is set to be the last Olympic Games to feature boxing. The sport has been left off the programme for the Los Angeles Games in 2028, after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) demanded boxing's international federation meet its expectations of reform.

Lauren Price
Image: Olympic boxing is in a fight for survival

This rolling crisis in Olympic boxing has been escalating ever since the chaotic aftermath of the boxing tournament at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Concerns over bout manipulation, officiating and financial transparency led the IOC to demand reform from the international federation, then known as AIBA which subsequently rebranded as IBA.

The situation was so bad that the IOC suspended IBA in 2019 and created its own Boxing Task Force to administer Olympic qualifying and the boxing tournaments for the Tokyo Games in 2021 as well as Paris 2024.

But that impasse could not continue indefinitely.

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IBA did commission Richard McLaren to investigate corruption. Yet the organisation was mired in further controversy when it denied an opponent, the Netherlands' Boris van der Vorst, the opportunity to run against Russia's Umar Kremlev in an election for the role of IBA president.

Sponsorship from Russian state owned energy giant Gazprom and then IBA allowing Russian and Belarussian athletes to compete under their national flags after the invasion of Ukraine attracted further condemnation.

So serious were concerns with IBA that major boxing countries, like Great Britain, the USA and Ireland, boycotted this year's men's and women's World championships.

On its way out?

IBA's reform efforts have not gone far enough to satisfy the IOC and last week its Executive Board recommended that the IOC session strip recognition from IBA.

Boxing, under the aegis of the IOC Task Force, at least will still take place at the Paris Olympics next year. But its prospects for continuing as an Olympic sport after that remain perilous.

Not only have the IOC not lifted IBA's suspension but the executive board has recommended the IOC session withdraw recognition from the boxing federation.

IBA had a combative response. Their president Umar Kremlev said: "We committed to and executed a change in the toxic and corrupt culture that was allowed to fester under the IOC for far too long."

Umar Kremlev is the incumbent president of international governing body IBA
Image: Russia's Umar Kremlev is the incumbent president of international governing body IBA

He claimed: "Strong, autonomous, and financially independent [international federations] should be keenly aware and concerned as they are witnessing the time tested political and strategic tool of orchestrated coups for the sake of regime change, leaving only one winner, the organization seeking absolute power, and many losers consisting mainly [of] the athletes.

"Today this happens to IBA and becomes a precedent for others, so everybody should be concerned about the unchecked power of the body that has no limits."

Some national federations however had already lost faith in IBA's ability to reform. For instance before the IOC made their recommendation the USA withdrew from IBA to join World Boxing, the newly formed association that was established earlier this year as an alternative to IBA. Great Britain also announced their intention to apply for World Boxing membership.

"USA Boxing was one of the founding members of AIBA," USA Boxing executive director Mike McAtee told Sky Sports. "It's a 77-year relationship for us.

"Our concern was fairness of the field of play. We'd been very public about what we thought. We publicly brought up the mis-steps of what IBA has done.

"It's a privilege to be in the Olympic movement and IBA as an organisation has failed to live up to the requirements of just basic good governance to be a part of the Olympic movement.

"It seems pretty simple and straight-forward in the sports world, proper governance, financial transparency, taking care of the athletes and fairness in the field of play, and then cultural change in the leadership.

"Unfortunately bylaws, statutes, code of conduct are great documents to have but culture and the adherence of culture is more important. It's about the people.

"The recommendations [for reform] just weren't being followed through with."

IBA though insists it is reforming adequately. In an open letter to national federations, in which members were urged to "remain loyal" and "resist the temptation to align with fraudulent organizations that lack substance," Kremlev wrote: "IBA has taken significant steps to identify and rectify past problems and implement reforms to prevent their recurrence."

He said that IBA will appeal the IOC's recommendation at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

"I must emphasize that the IOC members are on the verge of making a grave historical mistake for the Olympic movement," Kremlev wrote. "Despite the challenges we face, I want to assure you that the IBA will remain independent and steadfast in upholding Rule 25 of the Olympic Charter, which guarantees each international federation's autonomy and independence in governing its sport.

"We will not allow our independence to be compromised, nor will we permit division within our organization."

In his open letter Kremlev also pointed out how under his tenure IBA has brought in substantial prizemoney for athletes as well as other sources of financial support.

Lauren Price
Image: Boxing at the Tokyo Olympics was administered by an IOC Task Force as IBA was suspended

The last hope?

The USA's Mike McAtee is one who believes that the IOC had already granted IBA more than enough time to reform.

"Being part of the Olympic movement is a privilege and you have to earn those privileges by doing what is required and they failed to do that," McAtee said.

"They've had since 2019 to clean their house up and, in my opinion and USA Boxing's opinion, the IOC has shown great restraint and great support for the sport of boxing. They understand how important it is to our countries. More importantly they understand how important it is to the world. Boxing gives a lot of hope for young people that come from tough, diverse backgrounds."

Umar Kremlev is the leader of IBA, which remains at odds with the IOC (Photo: IBA)
Image: Kremlev's IBA remains at odds with the IOC (Photo: IBA)

He believes that World Boxing is now the only avenue through which Olympic boxing could be saved.

World Boxing was established with an interim executive board including the Netherlands' Van Der Vorst and delegates from the UK, USA, Germany, Sweden and other countries, as well as athlete representatives in Olympic gold medallist Lauren Price and Olympic silver medallist Richard Torrez.

It will have its inaugural congress in November.

At the time of its formation the IOC took "note of the latest developments". World Boxing is seeking recognition as an international federation eventually as it looks to restore boxing's place at the Olympic Games.

After the IOC Executive Board's recommendation to withdraw IBA's recognition last week, World Boxing stated: "The loss of Olympic status would be devastating for boxing and have damaging long-term consequences, across the globe, for boxers and everyone connected with the sport, from the elite level to the grassroots.

"World Boxing was established to prevent this catastrophic situation from arising and to create a better future and is committed to working constructively and collaboratively with the IOC and all other stakeholders to develop a pathway that will preserve boxing's ongoing place on the Olympic programme.

"Boxing is at a crossroads and we urge every national federation that cares about boxers and boxing to think about how they can help to deliver a better future for the sport and support World Boxing in its efforts to keep boxing at the heart of the Olympic movement."

Charley Davison
Image: Olympic boxing creates opportunities like no other platform

The USA's McAtee said: "I do think that World Boxing is the future and that's why we decided, our board voted unanimously to leave IBA after 77 years and that's why we're excited to be part of the next chapter in Olympic style boxing.

"Third party oversight of the field of play, check World Boxing has done that, transparency of finances, the commitment of that, doing all the things that a good international federation needs to do to be part of a recognised international federation moving forward. That's just good basic governance.

"At the end of the day you have two boxers that get into the ring and they want to have a fair field of play. And that's the basis of our sport. Giving our athletes fairness without fear of corruption and manipulation."

The stakes are high. Olympic boxing is a vital part of boxing's whole ecosystem. For the grassroots of the sport it provides a crucial pathway for aspiring boxers, a framework that can carry them from their clubs to elite international programmes and competition.

The Olympic Games is an epic stage in itself. London 2012 for instance or the record-breaking achievements of the GB squad at the Tokyo Games show how important it is to UK boxing.

It creates stars in a way that is unrivalled. So many of boxing's biggest names in recent years have come through the Olympics; Anthony Joshua, Katie Taylor, Claressa Shields, Savannah Marshall to name just a handful. In Britain many of the best boxers in the country benefited from being on the Olympic programme. So many of the best prospects in the game, like Ben Whittaker, Caroline Dubois and Lauren Price, are Olympians or Olympic medallists.

In short being expelled from the Olympic Games would be a major blow to professional boxing as well as the amateur code.

Britain...s Lauren Price, right, after her women...s middleweight 75-kg boxing match with Nouchka Fontlijn, of the Netherlands at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Image: Lauren Price knows better than anyone how special medalling at an Olympics is (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

But the sport might only realise how damaging losing its Olympic status would be, at all levels, once it's too late.

In McAtee's view boxing must win its fight to remain an Olympic sport.

"In developing nations, those boxers will be the hardest hit because at the end of the day, the Olympic movement provides the greatest gift that they can give anybody in the world and that is hope," he said. "And to have that hope, to stand up and represent your country, to have your hand on your heart, hearing your national anthem on top of that podium, it's priceless.

"That's why we're all working together and our focus is on the future, to be part of the Olympic movement so we can provide hope not only for our boxers here in the US, or in the UK, around the world but for those boxers that have more challenges than we do.

"Hope is a great word and the Olympic movement provides that."

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