LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND –The AIBA decided yesterday to include professional boxers in the 2016 Olympic games. It was almost unanimous, in fact, with 84 of the 88 federations in attendance voting in favor (Newsday), and the other four abstaining. The consequences of the decision could be profound or negligible, depending on who you talk to. For one thing, pro boxers may not have as much of an advantage as casual sports fans might expect, being trained for longer, more strategic bouts. Mike Tyson and Carl Frampton are among those on the professional side in opposition to the change. Tyson commented that some pros would be unable to catch the speed-trained amateurs, and Frampton explicitly disagrees with conventional wisdom: “A lot of people are saying it would be unfair for amateurs because the top pros would wipe them out, but that’s not the case.”
AIBA President Dr. Ching-Kuo Wu made the case for inclusion eloquently: “…We have embraced reform at AIBA over the past decade, making historic changes that have shaped the present health of boxing and precipitated its ongoing surge in popularity worldwide…Our mission is to continue to make brave decisions in the best interest of our boxers and for the good for the sport.” This dramatic change comes quickly after the 2012 Olympic games debut of women’s boxing, which led to the United States’ only gold that year. It all sounds very exciting, but in reality the rigors of qualification, drug-testing, and the lack of monetary compensation for professionals will make the Rio games an unlikely candidate for any abrupt transition. The effects of this decision will probably be clearer four years from now, when pros will have time to become familiar with the process. They’ll have to consider whether they want to go through the process of qualifying and set aside part of the year for training, competing and recovering, all without making any money.
President Wu’s references to “the health of the sport” and brave decisions “in the best interest of fighters” bring up another controversial change in Olympic boxing. Headgear is no longer required for boxers in the Olympic games, as a result of the findings of a recent study on the effects of injuries on amateurs through 15,000 rounds of boxing. Dr. Charles Butler of the AIBA Medical Commission explains that 7,352 rounds were conducted with both fighters wearing headgear, and in the other 7,545 there was no headgear. The fighters who did not wear headgear were considerably less likely to sustain a concussion than fighters who wore it (0.38% versus 0.17%). Headgear was introduced in the 1980s after a series of brutal fights ended in fatalities. This is around the same time that professional championship fights were reduced from 15 to 12 rounds in response to the tragic result of the 1982 fight between Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim. With the benefit of perspective and years of study, we now know that the injuries from that fight, and other fatal injuries, were due more to dehydration exacerbated by the length of the fight than the gloves, or lack of headgear. Reducing the number of rounds in a fight has been proven to greatly reduce the likelihood of traumatic brain injury, whereas headgear has been shown to do the opposite.
It was also a display of confidence for President Wu to prophesy a surge in popularity for the sport. All the issues surrounding these controversies heavily influence that popularity. I hope this further controversy sparks discussion about brain injury in sports. I hope that in the future the conversation won’t be clouded by tradition or emotion. We won’t have reliable data on the effects of these changes for years to come, but now is the time to start studying. We’ll learn more about boxing and brain health than we ever could have without this evolution, and maybe we’ll figure out how to make boxing better for future generations. Maybe boxing will be a sport worth saving.