OLYMPIC GAMES: Jury still out on the judges

Ken Jones bears witness to yet another Olympic boxing fiasco and asks how long it will remain a part of the Games
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The Independent Online
Asked if diplomatic tension between the two countries made victories over Americans sweeter, a Cuban coach replied, "Absolutely". End of conversation.

When taking two boxing golds at the Alexander Memorial Coliseum on Saturday afternoon the Cubans were as tight-lipped as ever, declining to comment either on their victories or the controversial defeat of Juan Hernandez that caused their head trainer, Alcides Sagarra, to rage at the judges and angrily empty his corner of equipment.

An Olympic boxing tournament without this sort of thing would be unusual. "Looks like Stick-it-to-Cuba day," an American had to admit on the announcement that Hernandez had lost, by the quite ridiculous margin of 14-9, to Oleg Saitov of Russia in the welterweight division.

Scoring remains the big issue. For failing to agree 20 per cent of the time with decisions arrived at by their colleagues, five judges were removed from the panel. A US judge and Amateur International Boxing Association official, Bill Waeckerle, resigned on Friday after the American featherweight Floyd Mayweather lost a disputed 10-9 decision to Serafim Todorov of Bulgaria.

The US team filed a protest through their manager, Gerald Smith, claiming that "officials are intimidated whenever anyone competes against Mr Emil Jetchev's fellow countrymen." The most influential figure in amateur boxing circles, Jetchev is from Bulgaria, who had three of their six fighters in the finals.

After Mansueto Velasco failed to become the first Filipino boxing gold medallist on Saturday, losing by 19-6 to Daniel Petrov of Bulgaria, his coach, Raul Liranza, a Cuban contracted to the Philippine team, said: "I don't think my fighter lost. I think the judges thought of only one fighter from the start." A mysterious two-point penalty awarded against the Algerian lightweight, Hocine Soltani, in the final round of his contest against Bulgaria's Tontcho Tontchev, raised further suspicions. Although unable to score again, Tontchev finished level on points, only to lose on a tie-break.

An electronic scoring system - a point is scored if three of five judges hit their buttons within half a second - was introduced following outrageous decisions at the 1988 Olympics. Indeed, the International Olympic Committee has appointed a commission to investigate allegations that the American light-middleweight Roy Jones was cheated out of a gold medal at Seoul by bribed judges. The new system may be an improvement but it has not eliminated charges of corruption. "The officials are crooks," the US head coach, Al Mitchell, said angrily following Mayweather's defeat.

Given scant exposure by the NBC television network who consider it a turn-off for female viewers, again plagued by contentious decisions and charges of bad sportsmanship, boxing will probably survive until the Sydney Games but for how much longer?

Saturday's session was dominated by the presence of Felix Savon, who has taken on Teofilo Stevenson's mantle. The Cuban heavyweight, a gold medallist in Barcelona, came to Atlanta as the five-times world amateur champion. The covetous eyes of American promoters were upon him. During Stevenson's time attempts were made to get him in the ring with Muhammad Ali. Word now is that Don King would like to put Savon in with Mike Tyson.

For all his size and punching power, Savon would not last much longer against Tyson than Stevenson would have against Ali, but his second gold medal was easily obtained. Savon's opponent, David Defiagbon of Nigeria, who now represents Canada, was so intimidated that he even guarded his face during the first of two standing eight counts, as though suspecting that he was in danger of being assaulted by the referee.

When the finals were completed yesterday, Cuba had four gold medals and three silver (the US tally was one gold and five bronze), but had the embarrassment of seeing their light-middleweight Alfredo Vergel knocked out by David Reid of the United States. Although Reid was fancied to win the bout, he trailed 16-7 midway through the third round before knocking down the Cuban.

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