London Olympics Bring New Rules For Boxing

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The sport of boxing has struggled for years with the question of scoring. A scandalous result in a 1988 bout led to the implementation of a computer system, which had plenty of flaws of its own. These Olympics, the scoring has been overhauled.


All four American men who are boxing in the London Olympics have advanced, three of them by judges' decisions. They way judges make those decisions and the way they calculate scores, all that is new for the 2012 games. And there are concerns that the new rules may still need work. NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Olympic boxing history can be separated into two eras. There was before Roy and after. The Roy is the great Roy Jones Jr., here in the second round of the gold medal match at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And Roy Jones has opened up in strong fashion against Park Si Hing. This guy is bewildering. Jones is just bewildering in his speed.

PESCA: Bewildering, huh? If this were fiction that'd be called foreshadowing, for when that match ended, with Jones having clearly whipped his Korean opponent, this is what the judges had to say.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The winner is on points 3-2 in the blue corner...

PESCA: Jones was robbed, an injustice that the federation that runs amateur boxing addressed by overhauling the scoring system. From that point forward, three ringside judges would press a button whenever they thought a punch landed. If the judges all agreed within one second the boxer would get a point. Every punch, from knockdown blow to glancing flick, would count the same.

But this system was flawed, so boxing overhauled things again starting with these Olympics. The new system is complex, but head Irish coach Billy Walsh accepts it, especially after his fighter won on the tournament's opening day.

BILLY WALSH: It is what it is. We have to deal with it. We're lucky enough to fight in the Olympic Games, that all the disgrace with Roy Jones, and then they changed the system to computers, the computers worked well for a while, you know. It's all subject to the people pressing the buttons. And today it was good.

PESCA: Under the new system, all punches still count the same but there are five judges. And there's no pressing a button within one second. Once all the scores are collected, the boxer is awarded points based on what the boxing federation calls a similar score. Eric Zitzewitz, an associate professor of economics at Dartmouth College who has written papers on scoring systems in figure skating, is something of an expert in Olympic scoring. Still...

ERIC ZITZEWITZ: The similar score thing I've never actually seen before.

PESCA: Here's how it works. After each round five judges will have five different scores. The similar score standard dictates that if there is a cluster of three scores near each other, the average of those three scores will be awarded to the boxer. OK. But if the scores aren't similar there's a different way of calculating the score. It's the old, throw out the highest, throw out the lowest.

The big problem is the combination of the two scoring methods. Now if you have a pen, you may want to write this down. Let's say the judged scores are 6, 6, 3, 3, 3. So the 3's are all similar, the boxer would be awarded three points.

Now let's say the scores are 6, 6, 3, 3, 0. That last three is now a zero. You'd expect the boxer's score to go down, right? No, because now we're using the throw out the highest, throw out the lowest method. And the boxer winds up getting four points. The boxer would get one more point if the judge were to lower his score. You don't have to be an Ivy League professor to sense that something's amiss with that, but Eric Zitzewitz is, and he does is.

ZITZEWITZ: It's bizarre, isn't it?

PESCA: The boxers themselves, like Coach Walsh's fighter John Joe Nevins, make their own calculation.

Would you say you have a thorough understanding of the scoring system?

JOHN JOE NEVINS: No. I do. Yeah, just hit him more times than he hits you and you're grand.


PESCA: The sport of boxing has been called the sweet science. Olympic boxing can never be considered masterful math.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, London.



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