James Lawton: Olympic judges send boxing plunging through the canvas

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The hot theory here in the Workers' Gymnasium is that you might just be able to stand in the middle of the ring, while dressed in the full ceremonial robes of the Dalai Lama, deliver a speech on the need for Tibetan liberty and then walk unscathed into the street. Who, after all, is going to notice? Not, probably, an Olympic boxing judge.

Billy Joe Saunders, the 18-year-old Romany welterweight from Hertfordshire whom many saw here as a viable contender for gold before he lost yesterday to the Cuban Carlos Banteaux, is the latest to join a legion of critics of the scoring system that was born out of outrage at the judging at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, which made its leading victim the future professional star Roy Jones Jnr. At the current rate of recruitment they might finish up outnumbering the People's Liberation Army.

They will not and cannot be joined, however, by the light welterweight Bradley Saunders, who was plainly the victim of his nerves and the superior approach of the Frenchmen Alexis Vastine when he, too, lost and became the fourth member of the much touted British team to fall: three in the ring and one, Frankie Gavin, because he could not make the weight.

But if the British team have underperformed it is the Olympic judges who are under the heaviest fire here. Though Billy Joe was quick to make the honourable and realistic point that he would probably have lost in any system under the sun, he argued persuasively that myopic scoring had distorted the course of the fight – and forced him into the role of a desperate gambler against a polished, counter-punching Cuban whom he had beaten on points earlier this year.

After losing the decision 6-13, the grandson of a bare-knuckle booth fighter said: "The points didn't go for me today. In the last round I knew I wouldn't get the decision unless I knocked him out. The scoring here is so bad for the Olympics it is unbelievable. Even though I know I've had better days, I still thought my performance was exceptional and I should have won six or seven points with some good body shots. The way it is now, you might as well do fencing if they are going to judge like that."

In his disappointment he was still making a purist's point. If a good fighting rhythm, built around well-delivered body shots, is going to be ignored, if the judges are saying you might as well try to climb through the bedroom than walk purposefully up the stairs, the only option left is a bleak conviction that assessment of amateur boxing at its highest level is plunging through the canvas.

The inevitable consequence if you are a fighter of skill with serious hopes of winning a medal is to employ fast, flashy hands in flurries of head-hunting – and hope that the judges are both watching and honest.

One acute observer, the American trainer Teddy Atlas, is not sure either of those possibilities can be taken for granted. Atlas is no stranger to controversy – he once held a pistol to the young Mike Tyson's head and threatened to pull the trigger if he didn't shape up – and he has always been ferocious about low-quality Olympic officiating.

This week he told America's NBC audience that there were only two possible explanations for some bizarre scoring – incompetence or corruption.

Yesterday he threw more fuel on to the fire here before his television stint. "It is not enough to say that some of the scoring here over the last few days has been outrageous," he said. "It is going beyond that. It's as though they are trying to destroy boxing in the Olympics. Far too many shots aren't even registering. It has become almost physically painful to watch fighters going for what they believe is the chance of their lifetimes, and then seeing the ridiculous results of their efforts flashing up on the TV screen."

If you recite them quickly, the rules of scoring at the Olympics are straight forward enough. In theory, points are awarded for scoring hits by marked parts of the glove to an opponent's body or head. A panel of five judges votes when a point is scored. They have two buttons in front of them, coloured separately for the two boxers. An electronic system flashes up the points. But this only happens when at least three of the judges agree that a points-scoring punch has landed.

When fighters are tied after four two-minute rounds, the bout is decided by countback. The result is a system of win and loss that works against fighters who are supposed to be classically equipped for the old purity of amateur boxing ... and also those with the strong chins, good defensive technique and genuine power that make them more than cash cows for opportunistic promoters before that fateful moment when, say, a tough Mexican comes out of the shadows.

Ironically, in view of Saunders' distress at the marking of his own fight, his team-mate Tony Jeffries survived his light-heavyweight collision with Colombia's Eleider Alvarez with some considerable good fortune. The judges had it 5-5 at the end of the fight and Jeffries progressed to the quarter-finals on the count-back system, when the marks of two judges, the most generous and most stingy, are removed.

Another irony is that Jeffries – who confessed to a serious build-up of tension after his long wait for a taste of action – he had a bye in the first round – is exactly the kind of fighter Atlas has in mind when he talks about the destruction of Olympic hopes. Jeffries bought a van equipped with a kitchen and sold hamburgers outside the ground of his hometown club Sunderland to help fund his Olympic campaign and says: "Winning an Olympic medal has been my dream since I was six years old."

Yesterday it was a hope when, with the score tied, Alvarez landed two of the cleanest uppercuts you are ever likely see. Only one registered on the scoreboard.

Ireland's light-heavyweight Kenny Egan sailed to a 10-2 victory over the Turk Bahram Muzaffer, but both he and his trainer, Billy Walsh, complained bitterly over the judging. Said Walsh: "In the end it didn't matter, but at one point Kenny clearly landed six clean hits and not one of them registered."

The fighter spent a day in the Olympic village studying videos of fights here. He said: "I was desperate to get some idea of what they were basing the scoring on, but after hours of looking at that screen I still had no idea. It's bewildering and it could have terrible results ... like the wrong fighters winning medals."

Bradley Saunders at least returns to his native Durham without any of that angst. After losing 11-7 to the Frenchman he made the rather staggering statement that a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "I feel the pressure has gone after all these months of working for a medal and I'm looking to relaxing at being at home with my family. I didn't do my homework and my tactics didn't work."

The British head trainer, Terry Edwards, was as confused by the statement as when he tried to analyse the scoring in the earlier defeat of a Saunders boy. "We had done plenty of homework on a fighter that Bradley had already beaten, but he was not relaxed tonight. The French kid has quality and we could have no complaints."

Earlier Edwards had swelled the tide of criticism against the judges when backing Billy Joe in his claim that he had been denied six points. "This might sound like sour grapes," he said, "but we are not complaining about the result. We're saying that there is a real problem with the scoring. It's causing confusion. Sometimes you just don't know what's happening."

It is a poor foundation for the boxing competition which once made such names as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, and is suffering still more erosion here. For some time the sport has been under pressure in politically correct Olympic circles and old fight men like Atlas and Edwards are nursing a rising fear.

It is that the worst enemy is within – judging which is ruining too many bouts and breaking too many fighting hearts.

The scoring system Losing the point

* Five judges assesses the scores of each boxer according to the number of hits obtained by each. Each hit must, without being blocked or guarded, land directly with the knuckle part of the closed glove of either hand on any part of the front or side of the head or body above the belt. Swings landing as described above are scoring hits.

* A point is scored for every valid hit when at least three of the five judges simultaneously record a punch that in their opinion has been delivered correctly to the target area.

* Referees and judges attend workshops, and must display a commendable level of competence during the practical workshop at the President Cup, which was held in May.

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