It was 19 years after Seoul, during a training camp in Germany, that Billy Walsh decided to unearth the few Korean words he had memorized during these Olympic Games in 88.
Mannaseo Bangawoyo! he said, pushing his hand to welcome a new arrival.
“Ah, do you speak Korean?” Park Si-hun replied.
“Well, I was in Seoul,” Walsh replied.
“71 kg! “
“Roy Jones? “
“Em, yes! The Korean smirked, his expression visibly sheepish.
The gold medal won by Park Si-hun on the final day of the Seoul Games still has iconic status today in the hall of boxing infamy. Given a ridiculous verdict on Roy Jones Junior, he retired immediately after, taking up teaching in a rural seaside town.
He would later say that he felt embarrassed by the decision and suffered from depression because he knew it had a corrupt background.
When they met at this German training camp in 2007, it was clear to Walsh that Park Si-hun was a sympathetic man who was not proud of his status as an Olympic champion. “He was actually a really funny guy,” Billy recalled this week. “We were both head coaches in this camp and went out for a few beers.
“I had used those few words of Korean just to break the ice, never knowing who I was actually talking to.”
Two referees were sent home after the Seoul Olympics, including the New Zealander who officiated in Walsh’s stoppage loss in the second round to fellow Korean boxer Song Kyung-Sup. It was, at the time, considered a turning point for the sport with computer scoring introduced at the 89 World Championships in Moscow. As Walsh recalls, “It was awesome. You could come in and beat a Russian now!
But, over time, ways have been discovered to manipulate the computer score as well, and boxing has reverted to a questionable variant of the old system, culminating – 33 years after Seoul – in last week’s McLaren report which shed such a scathing light on refereeing at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Michael Conlan’s quarter-final loss to Russian Vladimir Nikitin is one of 11 Rio verdicts deemed sufficiently “dubious” to warrant further analysis by Professor Richard McLaren.
Although Walsh spoke to McLaren when compiling the report, he has not seen this full list and believes the decisions made against two American fighters, Mikaela Mayer and Gary Russell, also deserve further investigation.
In the meantime, the very concept of Olympic boxing remains hanging by a thread with real concerns about its withdrawal from the Paris 2024 Olympic program.
“I’m very, very scared that we’re not at the next Olympics,” Billy admitted this week. “It’s a sport that I have played all my life, a sport that I love. But this report should have been commissioned a long time ago because these rumblings have been going on for as long as I have been playing sports.
“I know the task force went to great lengths to fix the problem for Tokyo and they did a good job. But in some places corruption is right in their culture. It’s systemic.
The Walsh Task Force refers to the bulk of the boxing tournament at this year’s Olympics after an IOC decision to suspend recognition of world boxing’s governing body, AIBA, over concerns about finance, governance, ethics, arbitration and judgment.
And Walsh believes even more drastic action may be needed now.
“For me, AIBA must go! he said flatly. “Start with a new name, a new freshness. If the people in charge have common sense, they’ll wipe the slate clean now. Start from scratch on the recommendations resulting from this report.
“I think that’s the only way to go. For me and people like me, boxing is the best sport in the world. Are we going to lose our sport because of politics and the batons? “
The history of boxing corruption is a stubbornly resilient story that has thrown an asterisk next to the biggest championships for as long as Walsh has been involved. He tells a story about the early days of working with Gary Keegan in the high performance unit on South Circular Road in Dublin and the advice they received from a coach in Eastern Europe.
“We were getting ready for the 2004 European Championships and this guy said to us: ‘Give me two thousand euros and I promise you a gold medal!’
“His idea was for you to visit a referee, judge or tournament official at their hotel beforehand. Now we just wouldn’t do that.
“Even if we had had the money, which we didn’t have, we would never have taken this route. It would just have made us part of a rotten system.
“I never imagined that a decision could have been made before we even got in the ring. You never thought it could be so blatant. But it was the naivety of some of us. In Occident.
Over the years, Walsh has encountered multiple reminders that not everything that comes across in amateur boxing could be taken at face value.
Keegan wrote a report for AIBA on what they saw as a “shameful” manipulation of the computer score during a qualifying tournament in Azerbaijan for the 2004 Olympics. Then there was the shocking verdict from hometown in Turkey against Joe Ward in qualifying for the London Games.
“Joe Ward got robbed, a terrible decision,” recalls Billy. “And it’s only now that you begin to understand what happened there. Young Joe was at the time world number two. He had been junior world champion and senior European champion at just 17, which couldn’t happen now because you have to be 18.
“London was his time. I remember the decision was so outrageous, we had a real job to do to keep a clear head from other boxers. Everyone has gone mad.
“Joe, I know, will never forget this moment. None of us will forget it, we just couldn’t believe it. It was a Roy Jones moment, to be honest. London turned out to be our best Olympics, but one of our main gold medal hopes was taken away. And we had no recourse to do anything about it. Everything has been closed. The AIBA did not allow you to challenge a decision of the judges. They were gods.
” It is shameful. This kind of thing ruins lives and livelihoods. “
In Rio, Zaur Antia claimed he was told before Conlan’s fight with Nikitin that the verdict had already been delivered, barring a knockout. The McLaren report now suggests that may have been the case, with 11 contests described as “corrupt”. And this may be too far a scandal now for the place of boxing in Olympia. If so, Walsh despairs for the very future of his sport.
“We will become a tenth level sport,” he says if boxing is excluded from Paris 2024. “Everyone will do it just for the money. You go back to the smoky rooms and the old underground bars, you almost go back to the dogfights.
“I fear for the sport, for all these children who engage in the game, because the Olympics are what motivates them. If it’s gone, where are they going?
“They’re going to get the money, which is going to lead to all kinds of shortcuts. And we will certainly have a lot less to celebrate in Ireland every four years.
“Having the Olympic Games as an ambition means holding sport responsible. If we lose Olympic status, people will go to MMA or the professional ranks. The main engine of our sport is the Olympics. Take that off and it’ll go underground.
“It is literally so austere! “