Troubled AIBA 'has the potential to become a model governing body'
By Callum Murray at SportAccord in Bangkok
AIBA, the troubled international federation for boxing in the Olympic Games, has the potential to be “a model governing body for sport,” if it can address its present problems and avoid the doomsday scenario of boxing being kicked out of the games, according to USA’s Tom Virgets, its recently-appointed executive director.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan’s Gafur Rakhimov, its interim president, who has been accused by US authorities of being “an important person involved in the heroin trade” should be regarded as innocent unless proven guilty, Virgets said.
Virgets also insisted that an internal investigation that found no evidence of match-fixing in the boxing competition at the Rio 2016 Olympics was credible (he led the investigation himself), but pledged to act on any new evidence found by a separate International Olympic Committee probe into the allegations.
In February, AIBA was threatened by the IOC with the exclusion of boxing from future Olympics, beginning with this summer’s Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, followed by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, in an escalating row over the governance of the sport.
The month before, AIBA had held an extraordinary congress at which Rakhimov, the federation’s long-serving vice-president, was elected as interim president, in place of Italian Franco Falcinelli, until scheduled elections for a permanent replacement in November.
However, this did not satisfy the IOC, which said after the congress that it was “extremely worried about the governance in AIBA,” and that its ethics and compliance officer had opened an investigation into the federation’s affairs.
Asked today by Sportcal if AIBA was taking the threat of Olympics exclusion seriously, Virgets said: “Absolutely, 100 per cent.”
To address the IOC’s concerns, AIBA is following guidelines issued to it by the IOC. “Basically,” Virgets said, “we have to improve our governance, get our finances in place, make sure we’re in compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code and manage ourselves better. We have had too many problems and issues with regard to management, from staff to external relations.”
Asked whether corruption problems are endemic to the sport of boxing, Virgets replied: “Let’s talk about who a large percentage of who our population is. It’s one of the most diverse populations in the world. We’re one of the largest Olympic federations in terms of the number of countries that are members.
"We start with a population that sometimes struggles. It [AIBA] will have to be managed with great leadership to anticipate and overcome the challenges. But with strong leadership, we aim to do that, to change the culture and avoid the mistakes that have taken place.
“We have the potential to be a model governing body for sport because we are recognisable across the world. When it comes to best practices we’re starting so low that we can show massive improvements. We can build the infrastructure necessary to rise from the lower end of the ASOIF study [a governance evaluation undertaken by the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations] to putting ourselves in the upper bracket.”
The IOC’s threat of expulsion came after it expressed dissatisfaction with an initial progress report in which AIBA sought to address its concerns. A further report is due to be submitted to the IOC at the end of this month, and Virgets claimed that this would be different from its predecessor, saying: “We just said to them [in the first report] that we recognise we have problems that we’re going to fix. We didn’t address how, or give metrics of evaluation and timelines. If we’re serious about making changes, we have to be held accountable to processes that are really evident. It should not just be words.”
Expanding on the IOC’s reasons for saying that it is “extremely worried about the governance in AIBA,” Thomas Bach in February cited: “internal decision-making procedures, total confusion over who was governing AIBA at the end of last year, questions about the extraordinary congress [held in January] and the way the new leadership was (we cannot say elected) ‘promoted’ or ‘installed’.”
He also cited “the fact that former employees of AIBA against whom formal procedures are running played a role in the administration of AIBA,” and “issues surrounding - to say diplomatically – the new interim president of AIBA.”
Rakhimov’s US assets have been frozen and the US treasury department has described him as one of his country’s “leading criminals” and “an important person involved in the heroin trade.”
The allegations apparently prevent Rakhimov from travelling to USA, but Virgets insisted: “I don’t know how many times previous presidents went to USA. I’m not sure it’s a criterion for the job. The president is addressing the issues in the court system of USA [where he is appealing against the US treasury department ruling].”
As for Bach’s comments, Virgets responded: “I would only say that the IOC usually says you are innocent until proven guilty, and I expect the [AIBA] president to be given the consideration. If he’s guilty he should go to jail, but give him the same consideration you would give to any [IOC] member.”
Match-fixing and funding issues Addressing the match-fixing allegations, Virgets said: “If there is evidence out there of corruption or improper judging… Well, I was head of our investigation, and we found none. We found significant incompetence in managing results and how we managed officials. What we didn’t find was corruption. The IOC has launched its own investigation into AIBA, and we will co-operate 100 per cent. Whatever the findings are, we will support them and do whatever’s necessary.
“But we feel our own investigation was as thorough as an organisation can internally do itself. We’ve made significant changes in management and our refereeing and judging process [as a result of the investigation]. The training has increased to be more competent, and we’re using technology in the field of play to move away from the human element, and use computers completely. It takes some of the subjectivity out of our officiating, although our sport is significantly fast and very difficult to judge.”
Pressed on whether his personal credibility is on the line, given that he led the AIBA investigation, Virgets said: “When they see the report and the recommendations we’ve made, unless some piece of evidence emerges we don’t know about, I believe they will say we drew the correct conclusions with the evidence available and identified areas of weakness in our organisation and made recommendations to improve it. As for my personal credibility, I have a 40-year history of being seen as a man of integrity.”
Asked in February if the IOC had evidence that fights were fixed at the Rio Olympics, Bach said: “We have been on this case of the refereeing in Rio. At the time we received a report from a committee established by AIBA which dismissed such concerns, but, from the fact that refereeing is part of the decision we already took in December requesting more information, you can conclude that we are still looking into this issue. We want to have satisfying information that the result presented to us by the AIBA committee does really reflect the reality.”
Bach also said that the IOC had “suspended all financial payments” to the federation, including “direct boxing payments through Olympic Solidarity,” frozen all contacts with the federation, except those required to implement the sanctions, and demanded the new report by 30 April.
Virgets said that AIBA does not know exactly how much funding has been suspended but added that it was “not significant” in relation to its annual budget of between $4 million and $5 million.
He added: “We’re undergoing a full audit, which will be part of the report to the IOC, but we expect that it will show that we have the funding necessary to continue operations at an appropriate level. Certainly, we’re going to tighten up, but we can operate so the programme and athletes will not suffer.”
Several senior staff members have departed AIBA in recent months, including Virgets’ predecessor as executive director. Asked if they were fired, Virgets said: “We had to reduce our staff in numbers, but the majority of those positions not forced. There were two that were.” AIBA is presently without a sports director, a crucial position, and Virgets added said that a global search for a person to fill the position will begin “within a week.”
Asked if any sponsors have deserted the federation as a result of the scandal, Virgets said: “With all our programmes we review everything we do and at this time no sponsor or licensee has rejected us. We intend to speak to every one of our licensees to give them the confidence that AIBA is healthy and is going to get stronger and more efficient and effective going forward.”
Virgets went as far as to imply that AIBA might offer discounts to its partners as compensation, saying: “It’s an opportunity for them to come in perhaps at a price that is significantly less.”