Olympia ancient greece_artist's rendition
Artist’s rendition of the site of the ancient Olympia Games

 

Today, the modern-day Olympics are held over a two-week period, or 16 days because it covers three full weekends.

But back in the day, way way back in the day – say over 2500 years ago – The Olympia Games were a five-day affair, as is explained in the book, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, by David Goldblatt.

Opening Day: Today, an athlete a judge or official and a coach take an oath symbolically for all athletes, judges and coaches at the opening ceremonies of an Olympiad, promising to uphold the spirit of sportsmanship. Here is the athlete’s oath, for example: “In the name of all competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules that govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.”

In the 5th century BC, athletes, trainers and their families took an oath “that they would be guilty of no foul play and that they would be fair and not accept bribes.” But as we find inconsistency at times between what athletes promise to do and what they actually do, we find human behavior hasn’t changed much over the millennia. According to Goldblatt, “there was plenty of cheating and plenty of bribery.” He went on to say that the many statues of Zeus that adorned the area of the sporting grounds were paid by with fined for rule breakers.

boxing in ancient greece
Greek boxer surrendering by raising of index finger

Day Two: According to Alan Carter’s book, The Olympic Glory That Was Greece, the second day was devoted to competitions for boys. The morning saw heats after heats of foot races as the qualifiers are shrunk down to the finalists. The victor receives a palm leaf, and his family and home town are honored by his grand accomplishment. The afternoon sees competitions in wrestling and boxing for the boys, as well as what could be considered a mixed-martial art called the pankration. Carter described it as “training for warriors who would be engaging in hand to hand confrontation with the enemy and Sparta was particularly associated with the sport.” In the pankration, you could bite or gouge eyes.

Day Three: On the third day, according to Carter, spectators enjoyed chariot races at the hippodrome. There were some six variants of chariot races – two and four-horse competitions, two mules, or foals as well – and they ran anywhere from 3,500 to 14,000 meters long. Below is a clip from the 1959 film Ben Hur, which is supposedly Rome in AD 26, over 680 years after the establishment of the four-horse chariot race. If the chariot races in Olympia were anything like this, I could see why this was a must-see event!

Day Four: Goldblatt wrote that day four was the day for generalists, when the pentathlon was held. The pentathlon then was made up of five events: the discus throw, the long jump, the javelin throw, a foot race and wrestling. According to Goldblatt, the competitors faced off in a footrace, the discus, the javelin and a jump that may have included weights. The winner was often determined after these four events. In the a winner could not be decided, wrestling was the tie breaker. The order and the way the winner was decided apparently is unclear and still debated.

Again, due to the sketchiness of the historical accounts, there is debate as to what happened on the fourth day. According to Carter, Day Four was a festive days, starting with the slaughter of 100 oxen in honor of Zeus. This was followed by the premier events, the stadion (200 yard foot race), the diaulos (400-yard foot race), followed by wrestling, boxing and pankration.

Day Five: Goldblatt wrote that day five is running, wrestling, boxing and “pankrating” (if I can turn that into a gerund). But Carter wrote that it is about pomp and circumstance, focusing on awarding the victors at the Temple of Zeus. The winners are announced with trumpets and declarations of their names and hometowns. They are given a palm leaf to hold and a wild olive branch to wear as a crown. After that, its feasting and partying into the night.

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Holyfield knocking out Barry and then Barry being awarded victory.

He was the dominant heavyweight boxer of the 1990s, successfully earning the heavyweight title three times, something accomplished previously only by Muhammad Ali.

But unlike Ali, who was an Olympic champion, winning gold at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, glory escaped Evander Holyfield at the 1984 Olympic Games.

The youngest of nine children from Almore, Alabama, Holyfield grew up in a crime-infested neighborhood, finding respite as a seven-year old in boxing. Winning at every level as a pre-teen and teenager, Holyfield rose to international prominence by winning silver at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela. In 1984, he found himself representing the United States on the boxing team at the Los Angeles Olympics as their light heavyweight contender.

While spectators did not know much of Holyfield at the commencement of the Games, they certainly were aware of the rock solid boxer whose punishing body shots with the right, and hooks to the face with the left were making a case that Holyfield was destined for gold. He mowed down the competition in increasingly ruthless fashion, with the referee stopping the contest early in his first two bouts. Holyfield knocked out his quarterfinal opponent in the first round, setting up a match with Kevin Barry of New Zealand.

Holyfield dominated the fight. Blocking most of Barry’s punches, Holyfield landed hooks and body blows fairly regularly. Barry was cautioned a few times for clinching by holding the back of Holyfield’s neck, as that was his only way of slowing Holyfield down. A telling moment came in the middle of the first round when Holyfield landed what the announcer called a “stinging left”, which turned Barry’s legs to jelly. The referee, Gligorije Novicic of Yugoslavia, reached in to break the fighters apart, but Holyfield managed to land another solid right. Barry was given a standing eight, and looked to be in trouble as the first round ended.

The second round started somewhat cautiously for the first 30 seconds, until Holyfield landed two lefts to Barry’s gut, the Kiwi’s knees buckling momentarily. Barry, stopped Holyfield’s momentum by again holding the back of his neck. After that Holyfield began to land shots to the head and body relentlessly until the fight was stopped when the referee deducted a point from Barry’s scorecard for, I believe, hitting Holyfield late after telling them to stop. Soon after that, Novicic stopped the fight to caution Holyfield for something that seemed unclear. Soon after Barry was cautioned for a couple of rabbit punches to Holyfield’s head. Soon after Barry is cautioned for holding the back of Holyfield’s neck. Another caution for Barry. And again, another point stripped off of Barry’s score.

The fight essentially deteriorated into a herky jerky rhythm of starts and stops, primarily due to the Novicic’s need to caution and warn Barry. Then suddenly, the fight was over.

With fewer than 20 seconds left in the second round, with Barry holding the back of Holyfield’s neck yet again, Holyfield delivers a hard right to Barry’s mid-section, and at the moment Holyfield lands a second right to Barry’s stomach, the referee shouts “stop”. A split second later, Holyfield delivers a crushing left hook to Barry’s right check that sends the New Zealander to the mat. Barry gets up, but the referee counts him out.

Barry has been knocked out.

But he hasn’t lost.

kevin-barry-and-evander-holyfield

Soon after, the referee calls Holyfield over and says something that sends Holyfield away in clear disgust. Novicic has disqualified Holyfield, apparently for punching Barry after saying “stop”. And just like that, the fight is over and Barry has won the fight. And when the two boxers are standing at the side of the referee, and raises the right hand of Barry in victory, Barry grabs Holyfield’s right arm and lifts it in the air. For all to see, Barry wants people to know he thought Holyfield was the winner.

Ironically, there were no real winners in the light-heavyweight competition in Los Angeles. Holyfield was disqualified, and therefore lost his chance to advance to the gold medal round. And ironically, because Barry was knocked out with a shot to the head, the rules dictated that he was “automatically rendered ineligible to fight for 28 days”, according to this article.In other words, no gold medal match for him either.

The result was extraordinary. The gold medal went to Anton Josipovic of then-Yugoslavia, who did not have to throw a punch to earn the right to the top of the medal podium.

The result was protested by the United States and the protest was denied. But in an unusual act of sympathy or compromise, the protest committee agreed to award the bronze medal to Holyfield despite his disqualification.

When Josipovic accepted his gold medal, he did what he thought everyone knew. He pulled Holyfield up to the top step. When Holyfield stepped off the podium, he was smiling widely, a classy finish to a boxer who would go on to win his next 28 fights as a professional, and become one of the world’s greatest boxers of all time.

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Screenshot from video of Josipovic and Holyfield on the medal podium
Conlan landing a right on Nikitin
Michael Conlan landing a right on Vladimir Nikitin.

As Russian boxer Vladimir Nikitin and Irish boxer Michael Conlan prepared for the start of the quarterfinal bantamweight bout at the Rio Olympics, the announcers set the stage with perceptive foreshadowing.

“Let’s hope this is a fair decision. We’ve had some absolutely shocking decisions, including last night in the world’s heavyweight final. All we ask is that Michael Conlan is judged fairly.”

“Nikitin got a lucky decision against Chatchai Butdee from Thailand in his last fight. A lot of observers here in the press gantry couldn’t believe he won the fight.”

Yes, the announcers on the broadcast feed I watched were Irish.

In the first round, Conlan, in red, was quick, aggressive going both to the body and the head. Nikitin, in blue, appeared to me to land several successful blows to Conlan’s head. Prior to that Conlan was getting a few shots to the left side of Nikitin’s head, and you could see a welt getting redder on Nikitin’s close-cropped scalp. Apparently that had been opened up in the previous bout with the Thai boxer. At one point, the judge stopped the fight to wipe blood off of Conlan, but that was probably Nikitin’s blood.

In the waning seconds of the first round, the Russian appeared to me to land successive blows to Conlan’s head – six or seven maybe, to which Conlan replied with a right. The announcer described it this way: “Attempts from Nikitin not really scoring, and Conlan comes across with a right and another.” The “another” was blocked by Niktin’s glove in my view.

As the round ended, the announcer said, “It’ll be very interesting to see what the judges are scoring. Will they be looking for the aggression or will they be looking for the boxing?” Presumably the announcer meant that Nikitin was making a show of being an aggressor, while Conlan was boxing his way to a first round edge. “I hope the judges are seeing a fair fight here,” the announcer said, almost anticipating the judges to score it in Nikitin’s favor.

When the 1st round scores came up, all three judges had Round One for Nikitin 10-9. The announcers were incredulous. “10-9 for Nikitin! What! What are they watching? What are they watching?”

“We saw this last night with Tishchenko.”

“Yeah, another Russian boxer!”

Nikitin lands on Conlan

In the second round, Conlan appeared to be taking the fight to Nikitin, landing far more blows than the Russian. With a minute left in the of the round, the fight was stopped and blood was cleared from Conlan’s nose and Nikitin’s head. When the fight resumed, they came out swinging. And again the fight was stopped to clean up the side of Nikitin’s head. But when they came back out, you could see that Conlan had opened up a new wound as blood streamed from the area of Nikitin’s left eyebrow.

“He is beating off Vladimir Nikitin here. And if the judges don’t see that, you just give up for amateur boxing, because this is absolutely brilliant by Michael Conlan.”

At this stage, again with my untrained eyes, I would have to say Conlan won the second round. He landed more blows, and there were times when Niktitin looked like he was flailing in the wind. I wouldn’t say Conlan won overwhelmingly, but solidly yes.

The judges agreed, each giving the second round to Conlan 10-9. Two-thirds of the way through, the two boxers were tied – even steven.

Conlan starts off the third round landing five or six punches as Nikitin kept his blue gloves up around his face, where they had been throughout the entire match.

It’s as if the announcers were trying to contain their own anxiety and will Conlan to victory for Ireland, as it turns out, the last boxing hope for Ireland in the Olympics.

“He’s the last boxer left standing, arguably the best boxer on this Irish team, the most talented. Michael Conlan, boxing for a place in the semi finals.”

“I’m not sure what I’m seeing him do here. He’s boxing lovely. He’s making Nikitin miss, but he did this in the first round and it all went against him.”

But in the second half of the final round, the two boxers stood toe to toe, exchanging punches, although to my eyes, Conlan was more aggressive, and landed more frequently. Towards the end, you can see both fighters were exhausted, both landing punches here and there, but no one really establishing any semblance of dominance.

As they lined up with the referee, Conlan was looking confident, raising his hand as the voice intoned that the victory was unanimous.

“It has to be Conlan. Surely. Surely.”

Nikitin defeats Conlan

As soon as the announcer said, “In the blue corner…” Nikitin dropped to his knees and looked up to the sky in joy. As the referee, still holding the arms of both boxers, twirled them around 360 degrees to display the winner to the entire audience, Conlan probably felt he was being dragged around like a rag doll. The judges from Brazil, Sri Lanka and Poland all scored Nikitin ahead 29-28, which meant that all three judges scored round 3 10-9 in favor of Nikitin.

“It’s another shocker,” said the announcer.

Was it? OK, I’d give Conlan the edge in round 3, and I believe he should have advanced. But I’m not a boxing expert. I’m only a casual fan of the sport. I grew up adoring Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, admiring their skill, determination and confidence as they ruled as champions. And when I think of Olympic boxing matches absolutely stolen, the benchmark to me is superstar Roy Jones Jr, when he clearly won his bout with Korean Park Si-hun in the light middleweight gold medal match at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, although the judges saw it differently, awarding gold to the Korean.

But may be I’m in the minority. After the decision, Conlan blew up in front of the press. Raising a nasty finger to boxing officials, shouting, “They’re f&@%ing cheats. They’re known to be cheats. Amateur boxing stinks from the core right to the top.”

Vladimir Nikitin Victorious

Conlan was referring to officials from AIBA (The International Boxing Association), who a day later recognized issues within their judges and referees. In a statement released soon after the Nikitin-Conlan fight, AIBA released this statement:

Robinson Leonard Ali
Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas in 1977. Both Leonard (1976) and Ali (1960), won gold medals in their respective Olympics before going on to glory at the professional ranks.
In 1988, when tennis debuted at the Seoul Olympic Games, allowing professionals to enter the competition, the gold medalist in individual play was Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia. While he defeated Stefan Edberg, whom Mecir had lost to at Wimbledon that year, the Olympic tournament was missing quite a few stars of the time: Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Boris Becker for example. As I understand it, the Olympics provided no ranking points or remuneration so many of the pro stars were not motivated to be an Olympian.

In 1992, when FIBA allowed professionals to participate in the Olympics, many of the teams were transformed with players from the NBA and other international professional leagues excited to be Olympians. With Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird headlining a team of unprecedented talent, Team USA swept through the competition with ease to win gold.

In May, 2016, the International Boxing Organization (IBO) will vote whether to allow professionals to compete in the Olympic Games going forward. Presumably, the reason is the same for every other international sports governing body – the very best in their sport should compete at the Olympics.

So if the IBO gives pro boxers the thumbs up for the Olympics, will the reaction by the pros be like tennis in 1988, or like basketball in 1992?

The Philippines have never won a gold medal in the Olympics. So why not Manny Pacquiao? Even though he was prepared to hang up his gloves after his next fight with Timothy Bradley in April, he has publicly said that he would step up if asked. “It would be my honor to represent the country in the Olympics,” Pacquiao told Agence France-Presse. “If I would be asked to represent boxing, why not? I would do everything for my country.”

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Manny Pacquiao thinking about Rio.
Will others pros step up into the ring in Rio?

This isn’t clear yet – some will be bothered by the lack of financial incentives, and others may be enticed by the national glory. But one thing is clear – boxing is a brutal sport. And as pointed out in this discussion board devoted to boxing, people don’t just lose in boxing matches…they can get beat up. And if you’re a pro, you’re sacrificing potentially lucrative but limited paydays to possible injury. If you’re an amateur, you may end up getting battered way more than what a fellow amateur could do to you.

From The Seattle Times, October 19, 1964
From The Seattle Times, October 19, 1964

The portrait is sketchy. The image reflects a lack of detail, as well as a dark side of a life that held so much promise.

It’s sometimes frustrating trying to piece together a person’s life on the internet. Toby Gibson was a boxer. He was a legitimate contender for a medal at the 1964 Tokyo Games. He was a husband and a father. He was a lawyer and a deputy prosecutor. He embezzled funds. He committed armed robbery. He served time in prison. And then, one day in March, 1973, he died.

I really don’t know much beyond those milestones in his life.

The picture above accompanied a column by Red Smith. The famed sports writer explained in his article from October 19, 1964, that Gibson was a “highly attractive young sociology student who wants to be a teacher and is always surprised when he knocks somebody out.” No one else was really surprised. Gibson was on a streak, having won 12 straight fights as a lead up to Tokyo, and was favored, along with Joe Frazier, to win gold for the US.

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Toby Gibson at the US Olympic Boxing Trials_Sports Illustrated_June 1, 1964

Sports Illustrated cited Gibson as “the most impressive winner” of the US Olympic Boxing Trials, held in May, 1964. The writer described him as “likeable and articulate…a fine boxer and superb puncher.” A professional fight manager was reported to have privately said that Gibson was “the best prospect since Joe Louis.”

In his first bout in the light middleweight class, he made quick work of his Thai opponent, Yot Santhien. Unfortunately, Gibson found himself on the losing end of a controversial judgment in his second fight against Eddie Davis, penalized significantly enough for “ducking” his Ghanian opponent too much. And that was that. No medal.

In the Sports Illustrated article, Gibson was quoted as saying that he didn’t intend to turn pro after the Olympics, that he wanted to be a teacher. As it turns out, he did go pro, but only for five professional fights before entering law school. His hard work not only got him a law degree, but also the distinction of being the first black to be appointed a deputy prosecutor of Spokane County in the state of Washington, according to his obituary in The Seattle Times.

Some time after moving to Seattle to open a law practice in 1977, Gibson got into trouble, and was disbarred. First he was caught misappropriating more than $25,000 of his clients’ trust funds. Then he was convicted of armed robbery and extortion of another law firm in Oakland, and imprisoned for 7 years.

I have searched and searched, but the subtler shades of color between the harsh outlines of his life are hard to fathom, and I am left with a story and a life unfulfilled.

 

NOTE: This article was updated on January 2, 2017

From the book
From the book “XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964_Asahi Shimbun”

He came from nowhere. Japan was expecting gold in wrestling, judo and women’s volleyball, but not boxing.

Takao Sakurai (桜井 孝雄) won his first match in the bantamweight class against Brian Packer of Great Britain, but no one outside the Korakuen Ice Palace took notice. He won his second match with ease against Ghanian Cassis Aryee, but there was still no interest. But when Sakurai easily outpointed Romanian Nicolae Puiu, people finally began talking about the kid from Chiba.

Japan experienced glory in boxing for the first time in Rome, when Kiyoshi Tanabe won bronze in the middleweight class. But when Sakurai defeated Washington Rodriguez of Uruguay, Japan had a boxer in an Olympic finals for the first time.

His opponent in the finals was Chung Shin-Cho of South Korea. From the beginning, Sakurai peppered Chung with stinging right jabs and hammered with hard lefts throughout the contest. Chung went down three times before the referee stopped the fight at 1 minute 18 seconds of the second round.

Takao Sakurai on the podium
Takao Sakurai becomes the first Japanese to win gold in boxing, and remained the only one until Ryota Murata did so in London in 2012.

Sakurai was perceived as a very cool competitor, sometimes overly so. When a reporter suggested it was surprising that Sakurai wasn’t brimming with tears of happiness after winning the gold, he replied, “I haven’t had any water to drink, so no tears to cry”.

American lightweight gold medalist, Sam Mosberg, at the 1920 Antwerp Games was a spectator and was quoted as saying that Sakurai was the most outstanding boxer at the Tokyo Olympics. He was “very aggressive and willing to fight,” Mosberg was quoted as saying at the Hospitality Center of the Takashimaya Department Store. Why the 68-year old Olympian was interviewed at a department store, I have no idea. But finally, everybody knew who Takao Sakurai was.

Watch this video on Sakurai. It’s in Japanese, but

 From
Joe Frazier, recovering from surgery to his thumb at a hospital in Philadelphia after returning from Tokyo. From “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Vol 16.

What a great picture of Joe Frazier, the butcher from Philadelphia, and gold-medal heavyweight from the Tokyo Summer Games. For years, Frazier was the verbal punching bag of Muhammad Ali, tolerating all sorts of insult regarding his looks. But here, Frazier is looking handsome and cool in his PJs.

You can see the left hand in a cast. At the Tokyo Summer Olympics, he apparently broke his Joe Frazier in Tokyo USA shirtthumb in the semi-final match with Vadim Yemelyanov, the Soviet boxer he knocked out in the second round. He knew something was wrong with his hand as he had trouble gripping with it. But the hand felt better after soaking in cold water, and so he didn’t bother getting x-rays. Frazier went on to gain a 3-2 decision over Hans Huber of Germany to win gold. While he clearly favored his right, he did occasionally throw a left hook. In the locker room, he must have been feeling supremely

Dong Kih Choh, south Korean Featherweight

He just sat there. For nearly an hour. Sulking.

Dong Kih Choh was in the midst of the first round with a Soviet boxer named Stanislaw Sorokin at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games, when the referee suddenly called off the fight.

According to David Wallechinsky’s “Complete Book of the Olympics,” after 1 minute 6 seconds of the 1st round of his quarterfinal bout against Soviet boxer Stanislaw Sorokin, Dong was disqualified for “holding his head too low”.

I don’t get it. Nothing a few good upper cuts can’t handle….

From XVIII Olympiad Volume 10
From XVIII Olympiad Volume 10
Poster marketing the Ali vs Aoki boxing/wrestling exhibition in Japan
Poster of the Ali vs Aoki exhibition match in Japan

Japan’s head of the Olympic delegation, Olympian Kenkichi Oshima, proclaimed 6 days prior to the start of the 1964 Games that Japan must win at least 15 gold medals. Since Japan’s haul for the 1960 Games in Rome was only 4, Oshima’s declaration was uncustomarily boastful.

As it turned out, Japan won 16 gold medals, part of it due to the entry of Judo to the summer games. But arguably the main reason was Japan’s emergence as a wrestling power, as their wrestlers won a surprising five gold medals. Much credit was given to the team’s coach, Ichiro Hatta, famous for his Spartan training methods and singular mindset on winning.

Equally interesting, at least to me, is that Hatta is the one who introduced Muhammad Ali to Japanese wrestler, Antonio Aoki in April, 1975, setting up a mixed martial arts battle in the Budokan on June 26, 1976. In the end, the battle between Ali and Aoki was a bore, and a low point in Ali’s career. But it certainly sticks in my mind as a quirky sports cultural milestone.