Olympic boxing is facing an existential crisis.
Earlier this month, the United States announced its intention to boycott the 2023 men’s and women’s world amateur boxing championships.
Within a matter of days, Britain, Ireland, Canada, Sweden, and the Czech Republic had followed suit, adding to the mounting pressure facing the International Boxing Association (IBA), the entity that organizes the world championships and was the international governing body for the sport of boxing until 2019, when the IOC suspended its recognition of the federation.
The boycott, which was undertaken to protest the inclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the tournament as well as IBA’s perceived governance issues, marked the latest development in a bitter power struggle between the United States and the Russian Federation—one that will undoubtedly have a profound impact on the sport’s Olympic future.
The IBA has since since denounced the boycott in a letter published on its official website, claiming that there has since been a “steady stream of complaints from athletes, coaches, technical officials, and administrators that do not support this decision and need immediate support in making sure they can attend these events.”
“To the leadership of National Federations that choose to use geopolitics as a means to play political games within boxing, IBA stands by the fact that athletes, coaches and officials from a country shall not be liable for any conduct of the management of their national federations or any political games,” IBA secretary general and CEO George Yerolimpos said in the “message of support” published Feb. 16, adding that the organization planned to offer financial support to any boxers impacted by the boycotts to help ensure their participation at the upcoming tournaments.
The IBA also confirmed that athletes from 77 national federations, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Italy, Kazakhstan, and Morocco, have confirmed their participation at the women’s world championships, which is scheduled to take place between March 15-26 in New Delhi, India, while the men’s tournament will take place two months later in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
The stated reason for the U.S.-led boycott is due to the boxing body’s decision to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete with their national flags and anthems—a decision that defies International Olympic Committee (IOC) guidance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in more than 300,000 casualties on both sides. However, the IOC has long been in conflict with IBA over a series of corruption scandals, accusations of bad governance, and concerns about IBA President Umar Kremlev’s alleged relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And though IBA has dismissed the boycott as nothing more than a “political game,” the current infighting among the federations is reflective of the shambolic state of Olympic boxing and the ongoing fight for control over the sport’s governance.
Boxing’s Olympic Meltdown
In January 2018, IBA—then known as AIBA—named Gafur Rakhimov as its interim president. The U.S. believes Rakhimov is involved in organized crime and international trafficking of heroin.
The announcement took place less than a month after the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued sanctions targeting Rakhimov for providing “material support” to the Thieves-in-Laws, a notorious Eurasian criminal syndicate linked to illegal activity around the world.
Rakhimov, who was AIBA’s longest-serving vice-president, was also accused of being a member of the so-called ‘Brother’s Circle,’ an international criminal group involved in drug trafficking. Rakhimov has long denied any wrongdoing.
At the time, Rakhimov’s ascension to the AIBA presidency marked the latest in a series of scandals that had plagued boxing’s governing body over the past few years. This included reports of match-fixing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio (later confirmed through investigations), and financial malpractice under the leadership of Wu Ching-kuo, who was suspended from his position following allegations of widespread corruption.
Rakhimov, who replaced Wu as AIBA president, remained in his role until he officially tended his resignation in July 2019, one month after IOC voted to suspend its recognition of AIBA as the governing body for the sport, stripping AIBA of any involvement in the Olympic Games. Qualification for boxing events at Tokyo 2020 where overseen by a committee, while the Paris 2024 qualifications are being overseen by the IOC.
AIBA was excluded from organizing boxing at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020, as well as the Paris 2024 Games. Boxing has also been left off the list of sports for the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, further emphasizing the deterioration of amateur boxing at an international level.
By December 2020, the aforementioned Kremlev was elected as AIBA president with more than 57% of the vote in a five-candidate contest involving 155 national federations. The Russian businessman declared himself a “clean candidate’ in response to IOC skepticism and proceeded to enact several reforms, which included establishing new committees to oversee various aspects of the sport, increased prize money, and a series of constitutional amendments such as rechristening AIBA as IBA.
Kremlev also appointed Canadian law professor Richard McLaren—known for uncovering the state-sponsored doping scandal at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia—to conduct an independent investigation into the reports of match-fixing at Rio 2016. McLaren found that nearly a dozen bouts were fixed due to a “culture of fear, intimidation and obedience in the ranks of the referees and judges.”
Kremlev also signed a two-year sponsorship agreement with Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom that was reportedly worth $50 million. The partnership that would become a major concern for the IOC in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Gazprom has numerous ties to Putin and has been embroiled in money-laundering allegations in Europe. It also has a history of buying out media outlets and channels and converting them into propaganda mouthpieces for the Kremlin.
Following the invasion, the IBA faced pressure to cancel its contract with Gazprom. In response, the boxing body claimed that “it is not currently possible to completely cancel the Gazprom contract” because of its financial significance to the organization.
“You will also be aware that, thanks to its partnership with Gazprom, IBA has been able to effectively support national federations, competitions and athletes, while also settling the debts that had threatened our future and transforming our organization,” IBA secretary general István Kovács wrote in a letter to the heads of the IBA’s national federations in March 2022.
Despite mounting pressure, the IBA renewed its partnership with Gazprom following the approval of the governing body’s National Federations.
Kremlev’s perceived ties to the Russian state following the start of the war led resulted in an attempt to oust him as IBA president. Several board members proposed a motion at the board of directors meeting in March 2022 but no vote was ultimately taken.
Kremlev was re-elected in May 2022 by acclamation two days after the only other candidate, Dutch boxing federation president Boris van der Vorst, was removed by an independent vetting panel. Van der Vorst, who was also endorsed by USA Boxing, later won an appeal against the decision but the majority of IBA members voted in favour of Kremlev and to not hold re-elections.
This led the IOC to once again express concern in a public statement, noting that the elections “merit careful analysis and are just reinforcing the questions and doubts around IBA’s governance.”
While the IBA has undergone clear reforms that include weeding out corrupt officials, improving the scoring system, and elevating their financial standing, the improvements have not. been enough to ease the IOC’s concerns. It has also not stopped USA Boxing from threatening a potential breakaway federation to challenge the IBA’s supremacy.
A Breakaway Federation
When USA Boxing announced its decision to boycott the upcoming world championships in New Delhi, the national governing body sent out a letter to its USA Boxing members that listed concerns such as a lack of transparency and governance issues.
USA Boxing also opposed IBA’s decision to let athletes from Russia and Belarus compete with their national flags and anthems despite the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” read the statement published by executive director Mike McAtee.
While USA Boxing blamed IBA for reinstating Russian and Belarusian national identity at boxing events, it is worth noting that the IOC has recently come under fire from the Ukrainian government for suggesting that Russian and Belarusian athletes will be allowed to take part in the Paris 2024 Games.
Nevertheless, the boycott was the latest step in a series of escalations undertaken by USA Boxing. Two months prior, McAtee sent an open letter to USA Boxing members suggesting that the governing body will explore alternative ways to keep boxing in the Olympics—a statement that many have since viewed as a threat to start a breakaway federation.
“The future of boxing as an Olympic sport is in doubt, and the IOC has made it clear that unless significant changes are made, it will not be included in the program for the Paris 2024 Olympics and beyond,” McAtee told USA Boxing members in December 2022. “This represents a critical threat to the future of the sport, both at the elite level and grassroots. We have a responsibility and a duty to everyone connected with the sport to explore all possibilities and do everything we can to ensure boxing’s continued inclusion in the Olympic games, thereby providing opportunities and inspiration for boxers across the world and for all future generations.”
The threat of a breakaway governing body was parroted by Dutch federation president van der Vorst, who tweeted in December that the IOC’s “patience is being tested, & is close to running out with regards to IBA leadership.”
While the USA-led boycott of the world championships marked the latest rift between national federations in boxing’s governing body, it also signalled USA Boxing’s preparedness to pressure and oppose the IBA’s authority.
In response, Kremlev is encouraging American boxers impacted by USA Boxing’s decision to defy the boycott.
“Those, who are doing this to our athletes, are worse than hyenas and jackals, they violate the integrity of sport and culture,” Kremlev said during a press conference before the finals of the World Boxing Tour Golden Belt Series tournament in Marrakesh, Morocco.
It is worth noting that Kremlev is the only Russian at the helm of an international sports body since Russia was made a pariah state after invading Ukraine. His status makes him a significant target for USA Boxing and others who view him as an associate of Putin and the Kremlin.
Despite Kremlev’s improvements to IBA’s governance and financial standings, as well as his commitment to opening new facilities in previously ignored countries like Palestine, USA Boxing and others continue to raise concerns about “bad governance” as a sticking point in Kremlev’s tenure as IBA president. It could be argued that this is more of a political concern—one rooted in the assumption that boxing’s Olympic future could fall under Kremlin control—rather than a matter of governance.
While it remains to be seen how USA Boxing will move forward following its latest snub towards the IBA, it appears that amateur boxing will remain a casualty of US-Russian politicking.
About the author: Karim Zidan is an investigative reporter for Bloody Elbow focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. His work is also a contributor to The New York Times and The Guardian. (full bio)
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