The Pandemic Has Some of the Best Boxers Watching the Olympics From Afar

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The Tokyo Olympics, already upended because the coronavirus pandemic that prompted a yearlong delay and heavy restrictions, is preparing for events in some sports to take place without the best athletes possible.

Numerous qualifying events have been canceled because of safety concerns, raising competitive questions similar to when major sporting events are shortened by strikes and other unusual circumstances.

Few sports have been as disrupted as boxing, which was already in disarray before the pandemic. In 2019, the International Olympic Committee suspended the International Boxing Association, or AIBA, because of judging scandals, ethics violations and allegations of corruption in the organization’s top ranks.

The I.O.C. formed a Boxing Task Force to run the Olympic qualifying events instead of AIBA, but the pandemic threw some of those competitions into flux, as well.

The European event was halted on its third day in March 2020 and was eventually completed this month. The tournament for boxers in the Americas was also postponed in 2020, but was fully canceled this year. A final qualifying competition for boxers who failed to earn spots in their continental tournaments was also canceled.

To make up for the canceled events, the task force decided to use the rankings at tournaments that took place as far back as 2017, from events that were originally designed to determine seedings, to fill these open slots.

Unintentionally or not, the I.O.C. created an uneven playing field, with some boxers fighting their way in last year, others qualifying based on their success from a few years ago and hundreds more unable to earn a spot in Tokyo because they did not participate in tournaments that retroactively became qualifying events.

“A fundamental premise about selection procedures is that they are published in advance and followed, so athletes have a chance to qualify,” said Jeffrey Benz, the former general counsel of the United States Olympic Committee. “It sounds like here they have taken away chances for boxers by looking backward at other events out of administrative convenience.”

Qualifying for some other Olympic sports like judo, tennis and weight lifting are entirely based on rankings from points earned in tournaments between 2018 and 2020 (and extended to include events in 2021). Karate, modern pentathlon and taekwondo assign some of their spots to athletes who qualified in tournaments and others based on rankings.

In boxing, though, the rules for qualifying were changed after some tournaments had been completed, creating different conditions for boxers on different continents.

Thus far, 173 boxers have filled the 286 slots at the Tokyo Games by winning bouts at qualifying events. Another 102 have earned a trip because of their rankings based on past tournaments. The remaining spots will be given to Japan as the host nation or awarded with wild cards.

The I.O.C.’s director of sports, Kit McConnell, said the boxing task force, which was created in June 2019 after the I.O.C. decertified AIBA, had to make the most of a bad situation. Turning the seeding rankings into a qualifying system was the best option because it was in place before the pandemic and was generally well-received, he said. It was unavoidable, he added, that any system introduced to work around the pandemic would benefit some athletes and hurt others.

“We know that changing from one process to another always means that some people gain and other people may not,” McConnell said. “Naturally, you’ve got an imbalance in the qualification process. But you can only deal with the reality of what’s happening.”

Still, the process has dashed Tokyo dreams for many boxers, including Delfine Persoon, a professional fighter and one of the world’s top lightweights. Persoon, a 36-year old Belgian, was excited to fight for a medal in the Tokyo Games, the first to include female professional fighters.

But in February, the Boxing Task Force canceled the last world qualifier reserved for boxers who did not qualify in continental tournaments, and the spots were filled based on the results of major championships and Olympic qualifiers between 2017 and 2021.

Persoon was out of luck. She contracted the coronavirus at the European qualifier in 2020 and lost her opening match, without knowing she was ill at the time. And because the Belgian boxing federation did not let professionals fight in amateur championships through 2019, Persoon did not have enough points to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

“It’s discrimination against professional fighters,” she said. “We are not in the amateur rankings so we don’t have a chance to win a ticket” to Tokyo.

Javier Ibanez and Yordan Hernandez of Cuba made even larger sacrifices. They moved 6,000 miles from their homeland to Bulgaria, where they became citizens because they believed it would improve their chances of qualifying for the Olympics. But the Youth Olympic and world junior champions had to wait three years before they could represent their adopted country in international competitions, so they missed the tournaments whose rankings are now being used to determine who goes to Tokyo. And while they are now eligible to fight for Bulgaria, the last qualifying tournament has been canceled.

“It was like a cold shower,” Hernandez said about how he felt after he heard that he would not go to Tokyo. “We are here with only one goal. We wanted to achieve it, but now we won’t be able to participate. They should give an opportunity for everyone to fight, not choose by rankings.”

Mandy Bujold’s plight has shined an even more unflattering light on the I.O.C.’s qualifying process. Bujold, a 33-year old flyweight, is one of Canada’s most decorated female boxers. But her bid to fight in Tokyo hit a roadblock after the qualifying tournament in Buenos Aires for boxers from the Americas was canceled. Yet Bujold did not fight for much of 2018 and 2019 during her pregnancy and the first months of her daughter’s life, so she did not qualify based on her rankings.

Like female athletes in other sports — most notably, Serena Williams in tennis — Bujold believes accommodations should be made, especially because she believes her circumstances meet the I.O.C.’s goal of promoting gender equality. The I.O.C., though, denied Bujold’s request for an exception, forcing her to file an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, arguing that her human rights were violated.

“Being an Olympian already, you have this vision of what the Olympics represents, and that’s always fairness and sportsmanship and equality,” said Bujold, whose daughter is now 2. “I had a little bit of hope that they were actually reviewing our legal issues and were going to address them. So when they did not address them, it was definitely heartbreaking.”

The use of rankings that has pushed out Bujold and other boxers has raised the tension between the I.O.C. and AIBA. The group’s president, Umar Kremlev, said he has been contacted by more than 300 boxers and national federations who have asked why fighters were not being allowed to fight their way to the Tokyo Games.

“This ranking system does not correspond to the rules of boxing,” Kremlev said in an interview. “The person who devised the system does not understand boxing.”

Kremlev said that AIBA continues to host international boxing tournaments safely, and that the I.O.C. has been too cautious.

“It is very easy to step aside to say no and cancel the tournaments,” he said. “Our mission as sports officials is to create situations for athletes to compete.”

Joel Soler Arrate, a Cuban who is coaching boxers in Bulgaria, agreed. He said it was unfair that boxers from African and Asian countries qualified for the Tokyo Games in 2020, when their tournaments were held, while boxers from elsewhere have been unable to fight in their continental qualifiers and now must rely on rankings.

“In reality, we don’t know if the best boxers will go to the Olympics,” Arrate said.

With the Tokyo Games beginning next month, the window for boxers to compete in qualifying events is fast closing. Yassine Elouarz, a 20-year old Moroccan who won a silver medal at the 2018 Youth Olympics, was too young to fight senior boxers at the world and continental championships whose rankings are now being used by the I.O.C. He knows what he would say to I.O.C. President Thomas Bach if they had a chance to meet.

“I promise to qualify if there is any chance to change the I.O.C.’s decision,” he said.

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