Liam Morgan

Just shy of two weeks ago, the European boxing qualifier for Tokyo 2020 began in London.

Despite sport entering a phase of near complete shutdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic and events falling by the wayside with every passing hour, the competition got underway as planned.

Two days of action at the qualifier, attended by hundreds of boxers from across the continent, took place in front of spectators, before it was suspended less than 24 hours after organisers sent it behind closed doors following tighter restrictions from the British Government.

Such was the degree of growing concern over the COVID-19 outbreak - although not enough to cancel the money-spinning Cheltenham Festival, which finished the day before the qualifier started - at the time that a sports event actually happening was bigger news than a rush of competitions being postponed or cancelled.

Italy, one of the participating countries, had imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 9, five days before the qualifier opened. On the eve of the competition, the World Health Organization said Europe had become the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

Yet the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Boxing Task Force (BTF) pressed ahead, and the consequences of that negligent and reckless decision are now being felt.

News has emerged that two Turkish boxers and a coach, as well as a Croatian athlete and two coaches from the country, have tested positive for COVID-19 on their return to their respective countries.

Where they contracted the virus has not yet been confirmed and it is feasible that it occurred during their time back home, but it is equally plausible they became infected while attending the tournament.

Given COVID-19 can take up to 14 days to show symptoms, numerous asymptomatic cases have been reported and combat sports being a hotbed for the spread of disease, it is not impossible more infections from the qualifier will arise.

Athletes who competed at the European boxing qualifier in London have tested positive for coronavirus ©Getty Images
Athletes who competed at the European boxing qualifier in London have tested positive for coronavirus ©Getty Images

It comes as little surprise that proceeding with the competition has sparked a furious response from those in the boxing community.

International Boxing Association (AIBA) Executive Committee member Eyüp Gözgeç, the head of the Turkish Boxing Federation, has accused the IOC of putting boxers and their families in jeopardy and claimed the athletes testing positive for the virus was the "disastrous result of the irresponsibility" of the BTF.

Gözgeç, a vice-president of the European Boxing Confederation (EUBC), also warned the price of excluding AIBA and the EUBC from involvement in organising the qualifiers would be a “hefty one” for the BTF.

The Turkish official has not missed the political open goal the IOC has given to AIBA, stripped of any role in the qualifiers and the boxing tournament at Tokyo 2020 itself following an investigation into its governance, finances and refereeing and judging in the sport.

Another AIBA Executive Committee member told me on the condition of anonymity that an athlete or coach contracting coronavirus at the European event was “sad but inevitable”.

"I feel for the athletes and have little faith in the IOC’s boxing task force,” they added.

While the ulterior motives at play here are clear, and those criticising the IOC have a considerable axe to grind, it does not detract from the fact that going ahead with the qualifier was careless at best.

Spectators were allowed at the event for two days before it went behind closed doors ©Getty Images
Spectators were allowed at the event for two days before it went behind closed doors ©Getty Images

Despite often proving incapable of organising a proverbial drinking session in a brewery, you would have thought even AIBA and the EUBC would have postponed their own event had they been in charge of the qualifiers long before people began travelling over to compete.

Carrying on as normal, and the subsequent possible ramifications, offers AIBA, still seething from being suspended as the Olympic governing body for boxing, an easy opportunity to show others how things are not always better when the IOC interferes.

During a press conference following an Executive Board meeting earlier this month, IOC President Thomas Bach claimed boxers had told the organisation the events it had organised in the absence of AIBA were the best they had ever competed in. I doubt many who took to the ring in London, many of whom were as baffled as any that the event was going ahead, share that view.

The IOC also claimed Tokyo 2020 had been postponed until no later than the summer of 2021 to "safeguard the health of the athletes", a statement directly contradicted by the decision to start the boxing qualifier as planned.

It is also worth noting here that the head of the BTF, International Gymnastics Federation President Morinari Watanabe, had been cancelling major competitions in his own sport because of the coronavirus pandemic. "Why didn’t they do the same for boxing?" another AIBA Executive Committee member told insidethegames.

Instead of contrition, which rarely emanates from Olympic HQ and was unsurprisingly absent from the statement from the BTF in response to the concerning news in Croatia and Turkey, the IOC opted to blame others and seemed to reject a link between the athletes testing positive and the qualifier.

FIG President and IOC member Morinari Watanabe heads the Boxing Task Force ©Getty Images
FIG President and IOC member Morinari Watanabe heads the Boxing Task Force ©Getty Images

While the BTF did express its sympathy for the affected athletes and officials, the group said: "Some news reports appeared to draw a connection between the affected participants and the Boxing Road to Tokyo European qualifier held in London.

"The London event was suspended ten days ago, on 16 March 2020, and the BTF is not aware of any link between the competition and the infection.

"Many participants were in independently organized training camps in Italy, Great Britain and in their home countries before the competition started on 14 March 2020 and have returned home a while ago so it is not possible to know the source of infection."

The IOC may not regret its handling of the coronavirus crisis, but even it must admit the decision to go ahead with the European boxing qualifier was wrong. With the benefit of hindsight, you hope the organisation would have chosen a different path.