Ewan MacKenna: ‘Amateur boxing is destroying itself and Irish fighters may be a casualty’

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Ewan MacKenna: ‘Amateur boxing is destroying itself and Irish fighters may be a casualty’

 


Delegates in Moscow casting their vote in the election for the AIBA president
Delegates in Moscow casting their vote in the election for the AIBA president

It’s just over two years since Michael Conlan stood in a ring in Rio de Janeiro, and lost his mind having lost a fight. “AIBA are cheats,” he famously fumed. “F**king cheats. They’re cheating bastards, they are paying everyone… They’re known for being cheats and they’ll always be cheats. Amateur boxing stinks from the core right to the top.”

He’s lucky he’s gone pro, for what’s happened since has dragged the bar lower and lower again.

We’ve had the cheating that the brilliant Belfast featherweight suffered from and that saw 36 referees and judges suspended from the Olympics. We’ve had the corruption that saw millions go missing and the association left practically bankrupt. This time what’s alleged is linked to big-time criminality.

The latest issue to hit the AIBA came last Saturday in Moscow with the election of Uzbekistan’s Gafur Rakhimov as president, which leaves amateur boxing and all of its athletes – including our gold medal hopeful Joe Ward – potentially on the outside, looking in, come the 2020 Olympics.

That is the severity of the situation. The Irish association confirmed yesterday that their vote went to beaten Serik Konakbayev from Kazakhstan after previously not responding to questions.

The IABA stated it “is unusual for the IABA, as is the case with most national federations, to reveal how they voted in an election but given, the intense commentary surrounding this particular election, it was felt by the board of directors and central council that it was in the best interests of Irish boxing to do so in this instance.”

It was the right decision in what isn’t so much a sporting tragedy but a serious blunder.

On Friday last, before that election took place, the executive director of the AIBA, Tom Vignets, was speaking. Accounts had just shown how the association had negative equity of €16.7m, had assets valued at less than €3.5m, and how in any other sphere of business, the padlock would have already bolted the door closed.

“It is an ugly, ugly figure,” said Vignets. What he failed to mention though was that their saviour was also an ugly, ugly figure. So money or morals? Twenty-four hours later, the AIBA made their decision.

Rakhimov has had an interesting path. In the fledgling Uzbek nation he was involved in bringing vital supplies into the new country, gaining him friends in high places. That allied to a love of boxing later saw him supply amateur boxers as bodyguards for the political elite.

Back in 2000, he was refused entry to the Sydney Olympics due to alleged mafia connections. By 2012, during attempts to reprimand him, the US Treasury Department noted that he is “a key member of a Russian-Asian criminal syndicate with a speciality in the organisation and the production of drugs in the countries of Central Asia”.

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By December last, the Treasury did manage to have him black-listed, meaning US citizens and companies are no longer allowed to do business with the new head of amateur boxing, as they named him one of his country’s top criminals.

In fact, on December 22, the details were released on their official website. They showed him with a villa in an upmarket area of Dubai, and with a high-end apartment in a Moscow skyscraper; they showed him as having a Russian passport and five Uzbek passports; and crucially, they showed him as “Linked To: THIEVES-IN-LAW”.

The treasury department went on to describe Thieves-In-Law as “a multi-ethnic criminal group largely based in countries of the former Soviet Union but extending to the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.” Rakhimov, 67, has been described as having moved from extortion and car theft to becoming “one of Uzbekistan’s leading criminals and an important person involved in the heroin trade”. He has always denied all links.

Craig Murray, a former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan who was removed after highlighting how torture was used there to extract information passed onto the CIA, described him as “one of the four or five most important people in the heroin trade in the world. He is a very major and very dangerous gangster”.

More recently, the daughter of former dictator Islam Karimov turned on many of the wealthy citizens, a move that saw Rakhimov flee to Dubai and leak information on human rights abuses and the rulers to aid agencies. Some saw him as a victim, others not so, and while one person close to him says they defended his right to not be extradited and face torture, that’s where Uzbekistan’s defence of his past, present and future ended.

But regardless of internal complications, externally this ought to be clear-cut. Boxing would have done well to stay far, far away.

* * * * *

Let’s be charitable and describe the AIBA in the years leading up to all this as grimy. Their dire financial position came about largely due to a scandal around a loan it received from a construction firm in Azerbaijan. Not only was it never repaid, but 45pc actually went missing.

The loan was agreed by former president Wu Ching-kuo who claims he has no idea where the money went, although the AIBA executive board has sought to ban him for life for “gross negligence and financial mismanagement”.When Price Waterhouse Cooper were called in to audit the books, they suggested the federation get a criminal lawyer.

Wu left in November of last year; by December Rakhimov was punished by the United States’ authorities, yet by January the opening presented by the former still allowed the latter to step up from vice-president of 15 years to the top role temporarily.

It was a rough start for him. On February 4, IOC leader Thomas Bach said that they’d be looking into the governance, the corruption and the anti-doping measures as Russia had been let loose in that sphere. On top of that, they’d suspended vital funding from Rio.

Rakhimov’s goals were to clear up the mess in terms of people and profit, and he still talks about how he restructured huge debt, turned bad loans into sponsorship deals since taking charge. Granted, he has refused to detail how all this was done. Money saved, but the question is – at what price?

Looking for reform, his history of being in the inner circle during so much corruption, and his history given the serious allegations outside of sport, left the IOC unimpressed. It left Bach suggesting that he was “extremely worried about the governance of AIBA” and how they “reserve the right” to remove boxing from the Tokyo 2020. Basically, give him the job full-time and boxing was on the ropes.

It was against this backdrop that last week the Irish delegation of president Dom O’Rourke, CEO Fergal Carruth, and secretary Art O’Brien made the trek to Moscow. They knew the stakes and since then (before yesterday’s statement) I tried to contact Carruth and the association with four questions:

1. Was the IABA instructed on how to vote?

2. Will the IABA confirm or deny reports that they voted for Gafur Rakhimov?

3. If not, why not?

4. Olympic threats of expulsion aside, what is the IABA view on Gafur Rakhimov?

Yesterday’s statement has clarified their position, a welcome decision from a bumbling organisation that in the past had high performance chiefs pay for equipment and toilet roll for the cleaner, had those behind their evolution buying tickets at Olympics to go watch their fighters, removed Billy Walsh so ruthlessly, and failed to tap into their sponsorship potential.

Before the IABA revealed their hand, the newly-renamed Olympic Federation of Ireland said that, “These issues you raise are matters of real concern and are being examined. There will be a meeting of the executive committee in November. We share the IOC’s concerns in relation to the AIBA.”

Elsewhere, a spokesperson for Shane Ross said that the Minister for Sport had no direct role as, “National Governing Bodies are independent, autonomous bodies. It would be inappropriate for the Minister to intervene.”

The IOC will, though, and will likely make a call on this at a meeting this month in Tokyo. It’s then that boxing might well get back into the Olympics somehow, possibly without the AIBA.

Whether it should is a different matter given what they’ve arrogantly, stupidly and immorally gone and done.

 

Boxing association issue statement

“The IABA (Irish Athletic Boxing Association) can confirm that it voted for the defeated Kazak candidate Serik Konakbayev in the AIBA Presidential election. It is unusual for the IABA, as is the case with most national federations, to reveal how they voted but, given the intense commentary surrounding this election, it was felt by the Board of Directors and Central Council, that it was in the best interests of Irish boxing to do so in this instance.

“It is Central Council that decide how the IABA vote in all AIBA elections and, as always, the vote is utilised so as to best further and protect the interests of boxing as a sport. Our decision was made following careful consideration of  what was in the best interests of the sport and without any further information on the President other than that what we’ve learned through the media.

“The IABA remain concerned about the future Olympic status of boxing given the outcome of the election, particularly given that boxing remains Ireland’s most successful Olympic sport ever.”

Irish Independent

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