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Olympic Boxing: Scoring the Fights

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Jones won plenty of gold in the pros, but was robbed in 88 Olympics
Jones won plenty of gold in the pros, but was robbed in 88 Olympics
By Thomas Hauser
The Beijing Olympics are three years away. The London games are seven years in the future. But reform comes slowly in the convoluted world of international sports, so now is the time to take a long hard look at how Olympic boxing is scored.

Beginning in 1960, Olympic boxing matches were scored by five judges. Each judge voted for a winner based on his separate scoring of each round. The boxer who prevailed on a majority of the judges' cards, was declared the victor.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with Olympic officiating, incompetence and favoritism reigned. Then came a scandal that couldn't be ignored. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Roy Jones Jr. fought Park Si-Hun of South Korea in the gold-medal bout. Jones threw more punches than Park in every round. He landed more punches than Park in every round. And he landed at a higher connect rate than Park in every round. The numbers, provided by CompuBox, were as follows:

Round 1:
Jones: 20 of 85 = 24 percent
Park: 3 of 38 = 8 percent

Round 2:
Jones: 30 of 98 = 31 percent
Park: 15 of 71 = 21 percent

Round 3:
Jones: 36 of 120 = 30 percent
Park: 14 of 79 = 18 percent

Jones: 86 of 303 = 28 percent
Park: 32 of 188 = 17 percent

But there was a problem. The judges, who were allowed a measure of subjectivity due to the rules in force at the time, declared Park the winner. Thereafter, seeking to regain a modicum of credibility, the International Olympic Committee turned to electronic scoring.

The scoring system currently in use at the Olympics was introduced at the 1989 World Championships and has been part of every Olympic boxing competition since then. Each of the five judges is given a computer console. The console has a blue button and a red button; one for each fighter. When a boxer lands a "scoring blow," each judge is supposed to press the button for that fighter.

A scoring blow is a punch that has (1) cleanly connected (2) with the knuckle surface of the glove (3) within the legal scoring area of the body (4) with the weight of the puncher's body or shoulder (5) while not infringing a rule (for example, a blow struck while holding doesn't count). In order to push his button, a judge must have been in position to see clearly that all of the above criteria have been met. At the end of the bout, the boxer with the most punches scored wins.

But here's the rub. For a punch to register, three of the five judges must press the same color button within a one-second time frame. And the system doesn't work.

Spectators watch a fight and the scoring is at odds with what they see unfolding before their eyes. Boxers are throwing fifty punches a round; and at the end of the bout, the score is 9 to 7. It's obvious that scoring blows (a lot of them) aren't being recorded. Regardless of whether or not the right boxer wins, scores aren't being tabulated properly. It's like watching a soccer game, seeing Manchester United score four goals, and being told at the end of the match that the final score is 2 to 1.

The International Amateur Boxing Association oversees standards for Olympic judging and selection of the judges themselves. AIBA (the acronym has a transposition in letters because of translation from the French language) divides the world into five "continents": Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceana, and the Americas (which includes North and South America). Thirty-six judges are assigned to each Olympics. Three of these come from the host country. The other 33 are chosen by the governing boxing federation of each continent. For example, six positions were allocated to the Americas for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

AIBA rules require that Olympic judges attend mandatory electronic-scoring sessions and have worked at least one World Championships in addition to other international competitions. But judges have different motor-skill reaction times. And under the present system, one incompetent or corrupt judge can significantly influence the outcome of a fight.

As previously noted, in order to be counted, a blow must be acknowledged by three of the five judges (60 percent) within a one-second time frame. But if a judge is looking for a reason to discount the punches of a particular fighter, he can simply push his button late or not at all. In that instance, the required percentage jumps to 75% (three of the other four judges). And conversely, if a judge is inclined to push his button in favor of a particular fighter landing a punch, only two of the other four judges (50%) are needed for the blow to score.

The system is so absurd that there have been instances in Olympic competition in which all five judges scored a bout in favor of a given boxer. Yet because of the timing of their button-pushing, the other boxer was awarded the decision on points.

The IOC is aware of the problem. In August 2005, it announced that it had frozen $9,000,000 in payments that had been earmarked for AIBA. Giselle Davies (an IOC spokeswoman) explained, "It's due to general judging issues that have remained unresolved since the Athens Olympics." IOC president Jacques Rogge has declared that the funds will remain frozen until AIBA provides a "clear timeline and planned actions" for dealing with the problem.

The solution is a no-brainer. IOC and AIBA, take note. The concept of each judge registering each blow makes sense. But you've taken something simple and screwed it up.

The judges should continue to register blows. But their findings should be tabulated separately. That way, one judge's score won't impact on the scores of the other judges. At the end of a bout, whichever boxer prevails on a majority of the judges' cards wins.

In other words, "Punch-Stats" with each judge being held individually accountable for his scoring.

Here, the thoughts of Bob Canobbio, who founded CompuBox with Logan Hobson in 1984, are instructive.

The CompuBox system utilizes a laptop computer with two keypads and two operators. Each keypad has four active keys; one each for jabs thrown, jabs connected, power punches thrown, and power punches connected. If a punch is blocked by an opponent's gloves or arms, it's registered as a miss. Each operator records the efforts of one fighter.

CompuBox was hired by NBC in 1988 to compute at the Seoul Olympics. Canobbio and Hobson were in Korea for a month, compiling statistics for every fight that involved an American, all other televised fights, and miscellaneous match-ups where one of the participants was perceived as a possible future opponent for an American. The Roy Jones fight was the culmination of their efforts.

"The current system of Olympic scoring doesn't work," says Canobbio. "The sixty-percent requirement is one reason. Another reason is that each judge is counting punches for both fighters. Even if you're just counting punches landed and not worrying about misses or the distinction between jabs and power punches, I'm not sure the eye is trained to accurately follow four gloves. We learned that at CompuBox twenty years ago. Also," Canobbio continues, "because of the way punches are counted, the fights are awful. Olympic boxers are taught to land one punch at a time rather than flurry because, no matter how many punches you land, the likelihood is that only one punch in a combination will be counted. That means Olympic boxing has started to look like fencing."

The CompuBox system is imperfect in that the distinction between "jabs" and "power punches" is often irrelevant. Not all "power punches" are damaging blows. But in Olympic scoring, all connects count the same so that flaw doesn't matter.

Meanwhile, Canobbio would be delighted to work with AIBA, train its judges, and license his computer program to them. "It would be good for boxing," he says. "And quite frankly, another reason I'd like to do it is because, right now, the Olympics are giving computerized punch-counting a bad name."

If the people who run AIBA are smart, they'll take Canobbio up on his offer. And they'll change the current system of scoring, because it's hurting the sport. Also, I should add, honest judges would help.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at
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