The 1904 Summer Olympic Games included plenty of pivotal events. This third series of the modern games was the first year that medalists received gold, silver, and bronze medals for first, second, and third place. The St. Louis World’s Fair, celebrating the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase, ran side-by-side with the Games. The Fair and the Games saw the introduction of a whole raft of new American foods that are now staples of popular culture: the hot dog, the club sandwich, cotton candy, iced tea, and many more.
This was also the year that boxing made it to the modern Olympics. (Its presence in the ancient Greek Olympics is well supported by historical evidence.) It was easy for the United States to sweep all the 1904 boxing medals; the Americans were the only national team competing in the sport.
Things are much different now. Boxing has become a regular feature of the Olympic schedule, and women’s boxing has appeared on the bill since 2012 in London. That was the year Nicola Adams became the first woman to win the gold medal in boxing. In the 2020 Tokyo Games, male and female boxers from Cuba, Ghana, Italy, New Zealand, the Philippines, and other nations across the globe took home medals in a variety of weight classes.
Here’s what you need to know about Olympic boxing’s highlights since its inclusion in the Games:
A Recent Corruption Scandal Led to a 2028 Ban
Despite the international investment of time and training in the sport, though, there’s new drama unfolding. International Olympic Committee officials decided in 2021 to drop boxing, along with weightlifting and the pentathlon, from the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.
This came about thanks to an independent investigation that identified a pattern of corruption in judges’ decisions, and irregularities in official governance of the sport, in the 2016 Rio Games. The ban could yet be rescinded, so stay tuned.
Its Reputation Has Been Uneven since the Early Days
In St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904, the boxing events took place over two days in late September in the Physical Culture Gymnasium on the campus of Washington University. The weight categories included the standard flyweight, featherweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, and heavyweight. Women competed in a special exhibition event.
In 1912, the Stockholm Olympics notably did not feature boxing. The Swedish authorities objected to the sport and had banned it in the country. Along with other issues, this omission was responsible for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) significantly limiting the influence of local organizing federations in future games.
The 1988 Games in Seoul Were a Source of Controversy
For American and international fans, one of Olympic boxing’s most notorious moments remains that time at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul when Roy Jones, Jr., was “robbed” of a gold medal due to a judging decision. In his light middleweight final fight against Park Si-Hun of South Korea, Jones succeeded in landing about three times as many punches as his opponent.
Jones clearly dominated the contest from beginning to end. In the second round, he came close to stopping Park cold. While a number of bribery allegations have been made about South Korean officials delivering money to the judges, no one has produced conclusive proof.
Years afterwards, Park told interviewers of his shame at winning through an injustice. In the years since the ‘88 Games, he has been the subject of vehement abuse, including from South Korean fans, over the decision. He retired from sports, and he has spent years as a schoolteacher and a young people’s boxing coach.
Medals Line The Path To Fame
Notable Olympic moments of glory include the 1984 Los Angeles Games, when the American men’s team took home a total 11 medals, nine of them gold. This “dream team” included Evander Holyfield, Virgil Hill, Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker, and Mark Breland. Additionally, many professional boxers launched their careers after earning Olympic medals. Competitors in this category include Floyd Patterson, who won gold in the middleweight division at the Helsinki Games in 1952.
Muhammad Ali, known as Cassius Clay when he competed in Rome in 1960, won the gold in the light heavyweight division. Only 18 years old that year, Ali had to be convinced to overcome his terror of flying to board the plane to Rome. He achieved instant celebrity at the Games, becoming known as the “Mayor of the Olympic Village” due to his talkative, glad-handing manner.
In 1976, “Sugar” Ray Leonard won gold in Montreal in the light welterweight class, a feat that led to his image being used on a Wheaties box. The same year, Leon and Michael Spinks became the first pair of brothers ever to win gold medals in the same sport in the same Olympics. Leon took first place in the light heavyweight class, Michael in the middleweight.
Oscar de la Hoya captured Olympic lightweight gold in 1992 in the Barcelona Games. He defeated rival Marco Rudolph and earned the nickname of the “Golden Boy of Boxing.” De la Hoya’s victory was even more significance for him, since he had promised his dying mother he would win first place.
Of the many non-Americans to earn Olympic boxing medals, Ingemar Johansson is one of the standouts. In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, the referee disqualified Johansson because he thought the Swedish boxer was not performing at his best. Boxing from then on with a damaged reputation, Johansson finally received a silver medal from the IOC in 1982, in acknowledgement of the mistake.
Wladimir Klitschko of Ukraine won gold in Atlanta in 1996 in the super-heavyweight class. In 2012, the medal was sold for $1 million; the funds went to the Klitschko Brothers Foundation, which provides sports and educational programming for the children of Ukraine. As reported by Boxing Scene, after discovering the purpose of the sale, the purchaser returned the medal to Klitschko. After Russia attacked Ukraine in early 2022, some social media users mistakenly attributed Klitschko’s generous act to the contemporary war, but it did indeed happen in 2012.