The Biggest Fix in Olympics History
Thirty years ago at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, U.S. amateur Roy Jones Jr. ‘lost’ to South Korea’s Park Si-hun. And Olympic boxing was never the same.
Roy Jones Jr. retired last week at the age of 49. The decision was made following a relatively unremarkable 10-round victory in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida. Beyond titles he held in four weight classes, the years during his prime when he was considered perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of his generation, and thrilling battles against the likes of James Toney, Vinny Pazienza, and Montell Griffin, his most famous bout may have been one he lost 30 years ago as an amateur.
At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, South Korea’s Park Si-hun “beat” Jones in a 3-2 decision to win the light-middleweight gold medal—thanks to three judges who, by all accounts, were bought off.
The scandal, widely considered one of the most egregious examples of match-fixing in Olympics history—and for the Olympics, that’s saying something—also marked the beginning of a steep decline in both the prominence and quality of U.S. Olympic boxing. As Jones said in 2016, “We are now just not as good as the other countries.” That Olympic boxing doesn’t matter to most Americans tracks with boxing’s decline overall, but the failure to rid the Olympics of the fixers has made things worse. Or as Jones put it, “If you have pure robbery and they don’t fix it...”
Coming into the fight, the 19-year-old Jones was seen as the overwhelming favorite. It had taken all of two minutes for him knock out his opening-round opponent and he was awarded unanimous decisions in the next three bouts. Park, however, could easily have lost at any point before he faced Jones, and even those matches were marked by controversy and questionable scoring.
Vincenzo Nardiello, Park’s opponent in the quarterfinals, was so enraged by coming out on the short end of another 3-2 decision, he bolted straight to the judges’ table. While the Italian TV broadcasters howled, “Non è possibile!” (It’s not possible!), he screamed and jabbed a finger at the judges, before collapsing to the floor and into the arms of his coach, tears streaming down his face. Nardiello continued berating the judges to the point that he had to be physically removed.
In the finals, Jones dominated Park, who was barely able to mount much of a defense, let alone a counterattack. Unofficially, Jones landed 86 punches while Park only managed to tag him 32 times, and on two separate occasions, Park was hammered so badly that the referee called for a standing eight count. And yet, three of the five judges still had Park ahead on points. When referee Aldo Leoni raised Park’s hand, he reportedly murmured to Jones, “I can’t believe they’re doing this to you.”
Leoni was far from alone in expressing a combination of shock and rage. According to Jones, Park himself admitted that he’d lost. In a hallway after the fight, he approached Park with an interpreter in tow and confronted him. “I asked him, ‘Did you win that fight?’ He shook his head and said, ‘No,’” Jones described it. “And then I was cool with it. If you tell me the truth, I’m cool.”
Park couldn’t even screw on a semi-triumphant or at least happy face during the medal ceremony. Jones was showered with applause, while Park acted as if he was ashamed to be there, his head hanging.
But Jones entered the ring against Park aware that he was facing an uphill battle, to say the least. “I know how tough it is to get a decision [here] against a South Korean, but it doesn’t matter,” he said three days prior to the fight. “If they cheat me, that’s OK. I’ll know I really won it.”
Further, as Sports Illustrated reported in 1988, though the judges were supposed to be selected by a random drawing, the same three judges were curiously tabbed for both Jones’ fight and another in which a U.S. boxer advanced to the finals. (Michael Carbajal, a light flyweight, also lost in a decision when he’d “clearly won the fight,” SI wrote.)
One judge admitted on the spot that he’d unjustly tabbed Park, though he claimed he was motivated by something other than personal profit. “I was positive my four fellow judges would score the fight for the American by a wide margin,” Morocco’s Hiouad Larbi said, expressing regret when confronted by reporters shortly afterward. “So I voted for the Korean to make the score only 4-1 for the American and not embarrass the host country.”
A misguided desire not to shame South Korea is one thing; outright corruption, however, is another. Ken Adams, then the U.S. Olympic Boxing team’s head coach, alleged that he’d personally seen judges, one of whom worked the Jones-Park fight, receive bribes during the games. In one instance, Adams said that literal “gold nuggets” were delivered by an unnamed South Korean into the pockets of an East German judge. In another, an open wallet was flashed. At the time, South Korean Olympic officials denied everything, claiming that Adams was motivated by anti-Asian prejudice.
The International Boxing Association (AIBA) tried to do some damage control, awarding Jones the Val Barker Cup, which is given to the top boxer during the Olympics. USA Boxing wasn’t satisfied. It contested the result, but following an investigation, AIBI refused to overturn the decision, ruling that the appeal had not been filed in a timely enough manner. The three referees who had Park ahead were given an initial two-year suspension by AIBA and two were eventually kicked out of amateur boxing for life.
The whole corrupt mess might have ended then and there were it not for Karl-Heinz Wehr, the then-secretary general of AIBA, who also had a side gig with the East German secret police. When the Soviet Union fell, some of his files were made public, and in one document unearthed by an investigative reporter, Wehr wrote, “[South Korea] did not miss a chance to try to corrupt or influence me.” He also alleged that multiple judges had in fact been bought off by South Korean officials in 1988, and that AIBA was not only aware, but its highest-ranking members were complicit.
Given the newfound information, USA Boxing and the United States Olympics Committee went back to the International Olympics Committee (IOC), asking for a full investigation, and maybe, if they weren’t willing to strip Park, they could at least give a second gold to Jones. In 1997, the IOC determined that yes, some judges had been subjected to an influence campaign, but it was still not enough to conclusively prove corruption, given the sketchy, unverifiable nature of Stasi documents in general. So Park would remain, now and forevermore, the sole light middleweight 1988 gold medal-winner. As was the case with AIBA, the IOC presented Jones with a shiny trophy, the Olympic Order, which honors the highest contributions to the Olympic games.
Reached by email, Jake Donovan, who served as the boxing researcher and historian for the 2016 Summer Olympics and is the managing editor of FightNights.com, wrote, “Without a doubt, this has to rank as the most corrupt decision in Olympic boxing history.”
As to the IOC’s 1997 investigation, “[It] was a dog-and-pony show, a half-hearted attempt to con the public into believing any real justice was being sought.”
Why would South Korea engage in all this potentially calamitous skullduggery? South Korea believed that their boxers had been swindled four years prior, at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the conditions that make corruption possible have remained relatively unchanged over the last three decades.
During the Rio Olympics, Michael Conlan, an Irish bantamweight who’d lost to a Russian boxer, claimed that once again, judges had thrown the fight. While still in the ring, he bellowed, “AIBA are cheats, they’re fucking cheats, simple as that. I’ll never box for AIBA again, they’re cheating bastards who are paying everybody.”
Naturally, AIBA investigated itself and to the shock of no one, found that while certain structural issues and “unprofessional relationships” did a disservice to “in-competition best practice” during the Olympics, it was unable to find conclusive evidence that these failures had any impact on the results, AIBA’s president, Wu Ching-kuo, said. In November 2017, Wu resigned before an investigation into certain financial improprieties under his leadership totaling tens of millions could be completed.
Donovan doesn’t see much hope for boxing as an Olympic sport. It may even be eliminated altogether for the Tokyo games in 2020, thanks in part to the inability to clean up the sport—a decision that would sadly wipe away the increasing popularity of women’s boxing. “After what we endured in 2016, following decades of shame, it bears a legitimate question as to whether it’s even worth salvaging, knowing that even under a microscope that sport remains vulnerable to corruption,” he wrote. “A clean-up is always possible; the real problem is the depths to which the right parties are willing to commit.”
To be clear, Roy Jones isn’t to blame. But the rigged Park fight, the initial outcry by boxing fans, and much of the press at the stark injustice of it all has had a mixed effect on his legacy. What’s not in doubt is that it boosted anticipation for his first pro bout. Still, “As much as the sympathy from the scandal bolstered his status, the Olympic result also left him largely scarred,” Donovan wrote. Reached for comment, one of Jones’ representatives said he would not available prior to publication, as he was still recuperating from his 75th and final fight.
Charles Farrell, a former boxing manager, occasional fight fixer, author, and musician, told The Daily Beast via Twitter direct message that Jones’ greatness isn’t in doubt. “There were few boxers in ring history who had the blend of natural gifts he was given,” he said. “He also had an unquenchable work ethic, a sizable ego, and a number of chips on his shoulder, from being heisted in the Olympics, from a brutal childhood, and from any number of unknown vexations.”
The case against Jones ranking as a top-10 fighter all time, Farrell explained, is twofold: For one, Jones never really faced anyone capable of putting his abundant skills to the test during his prime when he was “untouchable,” and two, like many athletes, he didn’t know when to quit. “Jones’s vulnerabilities were always there, but he was so superb that they didn’t show up for years and years,” he said.
“So, in a way, he cheated us,” Farrell continued. “Part of the real Roy Jones Junior was the nine loss mediocrity he became during the fifteen additional years he fought after his vulnerabilities were exposed.”
For his part, Jones’ attitude toward the Olympics has mellowed over the years. In the months following the Park fight, he contemplated quitting boxing altogether, and when he received the Olympic Order in 1997, Jones said he would “die with a little hope in me” that somehow he would receive the gold medal he deserved. But by 2008, he’d let go of any nagging sense of resentment.
“That defeat was the best thing that ever happened because 20 years later they’re still talking about it,” he said.