The deepest, strongest Olympic Games boxing tournament in 16 years will begin today with two themes:
--Amateur boxing remains a sport in the International Olympic Committee doghouse, one facing expulsion from the Games, some believe, because of two outrageous decisions in gold-medal bouts four years ago in Seoul.
--For the first time since the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the major boxing powers--the United States, Cuba and the former Eastern Bloc nations--gathered under the same Olympic tournament roof.
And it is a small roof, too.
Some are suggesting that the selection of the boxing venue, the 5,000-seat Joventut Pavilion in Badalona, a Barcelona suburb, might have been a message.
Media and boxing officials are occupying nearly half the seats in a basketball arena with concrete seats and a tin roof. It’s the smallest arena used for Olympic boxing since 1976.
Until two weeks ago, the 20-year-old building was not air-conditioned. Only after pleas from numerous boxing nations--including the United States--were generators brought in to rid the place of summer heat and humidity.
USA Boxing board members, among others, believe the IOC is sending a message to the International Amateur Boxing Federation (AIBA): Either rid yourselves of biased decisions or face expulsion from the Olympic program.
IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said as much in 1988, shortly after Americans Michael Carbajal and Roy Jones were deprived of decisions most believed they had won handily in the gold-medal bouts at Seoul.
AIBA’s response: Computerized scoring. Judges have traded pencils and scorecards for red and blue buttons to score bouts. But does this eliminate unethical practices?
The system was first used at the World Championships in Moscow in 1989, and again at the World Championships last year at Sydney.
So far, computer scoring systems have been relatively free of controversy in the United States and internationally. But many in the sport are eager to see how it holds together in an Olympic tournament.
Blows are scored nearly the same as with pencils and scorecards. But now, computer backers maintain, politicized decisions are eliminated. A judge in a close bout, so the theory goes, has no idea who he has scored as the winner.
Seemingly oblivious to talk of computers, judges and a tiny arena, are the American boxers. At least, they say they would rather be fighting than training.
All 12 say they have grown weary of the pre-Olympics training grind, tired of sparring each other and are eager to box.
“I’ve been waiting to box in the Olympics for about 10 years, and it seems like the last few weeks are taking forever,” said Oscar De La Hoya of East Los Angeles.
The group has been in close quarters since the Olympic team boxoffs in Phoenix late last month. The boxers were given two days off, then were brought to a pre-Olympics training camp at Ft. Bragg, N.C. They have been together since.
Three members of the team are Southern Californians, with De La Hoya, 19, one of the medal favorites at 132 pounds. Pepe Reilly, 20, of Glendale, is the team’s 147-pounder, and 178-pounder Montell Griffin, 22, is from Studio City.
Eric Griffin, the two-time world champion 106-pounder from Broussard, La., also sounded the familiar theme this week.
“We’ve been training together for too long now, and we’re starting to get tired of each other,” said Griffin, perhaps the heaviest favorite in the 339-boxer, 14-day tournament.
At an athletes village news conference this week, the 5-foot-3 Griffin held up two fists and said: “I want to put my hands on someone other than Tim (Tim Austin, the team’s flyweight and Griffin’s sparring partner).”
“We’re ready to get it on. This team has something special inside, we can all feel it.”
T-shirts suggest the same: “IT’S HAMMER TIME--USA BOXING.”
The American boxers, Eric Griffin added, will confront each opponent as a team.
“The 11 guys who aren’t boxing will be sitting together, yelling for the guy who is,” he said.
“We’re all together, when we start boxing.”
Well, maybe not entirely together.
The team’s super-heavyweight, Larry Donald of Cincinnati, showed up for the team’s workout Friday wearing shower sandals, went through slow-motion calisthenics, and seemed to spend half his time untangling his tape player’s headset wires.
Donald and Coach Joe Byrd have had several run-ins since the team was formed at Phoenix. On Wednesday, Byrd went out of his way at a news conference to mention that Donald was three days late reporting to the team’s three-week pre-Olympics camp at Ft. Bragg.
Nevertheless, many pick Donald for a gold medal here.
During the last two years, Eric Griffin has beaten every serious rival he can face here handily. At the World Championships last November at Sydney, he was the only American winner, and he beat a Cuban, Rogelio Marcelo, in the final, 36-18.
Donald lost at Sydney to a Commonwealth of Independent States boxer who isn’t here, but then surprised many in April with a 16-14 decision over favored Cuban Roberto Balado at the World Championships Challenge matches in Tampa, Fla.
Donald, 6-3 and 215, is the only team member to emerge from training with anything resembling a serious injury. He suffered a corneal abrasion against Edward Escobedo during the boxoff in Phoenix; the injury has healed. Then the same injury occurred here Wednesday when Donald sparred with heavyweight Danell Nicholson.
The sparring incident was something of a foul-up, because Donald at the time was wearing competition headgear instead of sparring headgear, which offers more protection against facial or eye injuries.
This time, team doctor Jim Montgomery put a patch over Donald’s left eye and kept him in a dark room for a day, and Donald passed his IOC physical Saturday, as did his 11 teammates.
The best gauge of what might happen here is last year’s World Championships, during which Cuba won nine medals, four gold. On the 3-2-1 scoring system for gold, silver and bronze medals, Cuba scored 19 points, the CIS 13, Bulgaria 10, Germany nine and the United States six.
Yet Cuba, for all its success at Sydney, replaced half its national team for Barcelona. Cuban Coach Alcides Sagarra doesn’t have much to say about this, but he replaced one silver medalist and two bronze winners from Sydney.
In the six weight classes above welterweight at Sydney, Cuba won four gold medals.
“We have new, very good young boxers, so we have a good team--but there will be very difficult competition here,” Sagarra said at Saturday’s tournament draw.