Amateur Boxing’s Darkest Hour
“If my hand was never raised I would have lived a better life” - Park Si Hun.
It’s an odd statement to hear from the winner of a boxing match, much less an Olympic gold medal. However, when the story is given a second look, it’s hard to see how Park can’t help but feel this way.
In 1981 the city of Seoul, South Korea beat out its former colonial oppressors, Japan in a bid to host the 1988 Olympic Games. This was huge politically for both the Korean Peninsula and the legitimacy of the South. North Korea would boycott the games, along with Cuba, Ethiopia and Albania. From well before qualifying, the political stakes were high for South Korean democracy and Leader Roh Tee-Woo.
While the stadiums were constructed for the games, a young boxer was following in his fathers footsteps, learning to box and competing as an amateur. Roy Jones Jr’s talent had soon taken him outside of his native Pensacola to Gold at the Junior World Championships in Cuba, The Goodwill Games in Moscow and two National Golden Gloves in Iowa and Tennessee. By 1988 a 19 year old Roy was the hottest property in the amateur game, tipped for both gold and the prestigious Val Barker Trophy, awarded to the best boxer of the entire tournament.
Park Si-Hun entered the tournament with significantly less fanfare, although he did have two well thought of victories at world level. One defeating European champion Micheal Timm at the ‘Boxing World Cup’ in 1985 and over US champion Kevin Bryant in 1984. Despite them being respectable wins, they had occurred three and four years respectively before Seoul ‘88.
The two’s passages to the final reflected their reputations. Roy flew through. His lightning left hook, cat like reflexes and hypnotic hand speed took care of all of his competitors. The only time he even seemed to break a sweat was against the well regarded Brit (and future world champion) Richie Woodall in the semi final, a fight he still won very comfortably.
Park on the other hand raised suspicions early his first two bouts were scored heavily in his favour and In his third bout he had an extremely contentious contest with Vincenzo Nardiello. Winning 3-2 most observers thought the result was the wrong way round, as did Nardiello, who had to be physically removed from the ring due to his vocal protest.
Their final took place on the final day of boxing at the games, and went pretty much as was expected. Roy Jones Jr toyed with his opponent, arms down by his side landing the type of flash single punches he’d make his trademark in a professional ring. Park looked lost as Roy switched angles and peppered him from three hundred and sixty degrees. The Korean finished the bout having stood for two standing eight counts.
NBC’s Count-A-Punch recorder scored the rounds 20-3, 30-15 and 36-14 (a total of 86- 32) all in Jones’s favour. As the results came in, thoughts were not on the fight but the huge professional potential of America’s newest gold medalist.
Then the murmurs started, frantic dashes were made at ringside. Eventually when the decision was read out it was more bizarre than anyone could have imagined. Bob Kasule of Uganda, Alberto Durán of Uruguay and Hiouad Larbi of Morocco had decided that Park Si-Hun and not Roy Jones, was the winner. As referee Aldo Leoni raised Park’s hand and the 3-2 score was read out, he looked more embarrassed than shocked.
Leoni said “I can’t believe they’re doing this to you,” out loud to Jones in the ring as he protested the decision. “He told me through the interpreter that he didn’t win” Roy Jones would recall in 2020. Park picked up his adversary to try and demonstrate to the crowd the real winner. “I didn’t win because it’s a fight I couldn’t have won,” Park remembered, “a competitor knows”.
The aftermath was even more scintillating than that bout itself, one judge, Larbi told Sports Illustrated. “The American won easily; so easily, in fact, that I was positive my four fellow judges would score the fight for the American by a wide margin. So I voted for the Korean to make the score only 4-1 for the American and not embarrass the host country.” This showed beyond a doubt that influence had been exerted on the judges by the Korean organisers for their own political aims.
Larbi and his fellow judges Kasule and Durán were suspended for six months pending an investigation but eventually cleared. Roy Jones had had his Olympic medal stolen, and no one seemed to care.
Salt was added to the wound when AIBA, not affiliated with the Olympic authority, awarded Jones with the Val Barker trophy, which was only the third and to this day, the last time in the competition's history when the award did not go to one of the gold medal winners.
Jones was awarded the Val Barker trophy, as the best stylistic boxer of the 1988 games, which was only the third and to this day the last time in the competition's history when the award did not go to one of the gold medal winners.
Although immediately the Judges were acquitted their reputations took an enormous hit and they rarely worked again. By the time the 1992 Barcelona games came around Olympic organizers had established a new scoring system for Olympic boxing, and tried desperately to purge everyone involved in the controversy.
Only in 1997, when Roy Jones was already a three weight world champion with a record of 35-1, did we get any kind of answers. An official IOC (International Olympic Committee) investigation ruled that in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the offending judges had simply been “wined and dined” by South Korean organisers, and this did not amount to corruption.
“I don’t blame him, he didn’t score the fight” reflected Jones this year. “It’s the worst I’ve ever been dealt in my life. They put the silver medal around my neck, and I took it right off. I won’t ever put it around my neck again.”
The bigger tragedy though was the man who did have the medal. Embarrassed and dejected, Park Si-Hun never laced up the gloves again, retiring immediately. Although he now coaches boxers, that moment has echoed through his entire life. “I only wish to restore my honour.” He said.
Ewan for SimBoxx
In Association with Clint Patrick