I wonder how many of those going to the boxing at the Beijing Olympics remember the opening ceremony of Atlanta  1996 when the shambling figure of Muhammed Ali struggled nobly to light the Olympic flame.

In Atlanta, and since, Muhammed Ali’s suffering from “Pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome” was visible for all to see. Like other great champions before him – Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson amongst many others – the effects of repeated blows to the head over years in the ring was finally taking its toll.  It may take up to fifteen years for the damage of repeated concussion to emerge in the way that it has with Ali and countless others.

Defenders of boxing often argue that many other sports are dangerous and that that the death or serious injury rate in the sport is lower than in (say) mountaineering or sky diving. This argument misses the point completely. It is only in boxing where you will have your head pummelled continuously for more than thirty minutes by an opponent whose primary purpose is to knock you senseless. That is the point of the sport – to strive sufficiently to injure your opponent that you beat him physically into submission. The world of professional boxing is an anachronism in modern sport in that attacks by one fighter on the head of another are a normal part of the tactics – and it is this aspect of the sport that is its biggest source of controversy and shame. Whilst contests in many contact sports (like Rugby, for example) can be tough and very physically and mentally demanding there is no legal sport, other than professional boxing, where the primary intention is to put your opponent in a comatose state. Boxing legitimises and glorifies violence.

You do not need to be a student of history to know that violence is an inherent part of the make-up of Homo sapiens. Just open your newspaper any day and you will be reminded of man’s inhumanity to man. But surely sport must be different? If we agree that sport, however much it is the modern opium of the masses, is essentially trivial and primarily for fun and for entertainment how can we tolerate an activity that venerates violence and causes so much suffering? That there is a glamour, of sorts, in boxing with “A list” celebrities occupying the ringside seats only intensifies the repulsion that many of us feel that modern society still tolerates this vulgarity.

Estimates indicate that around 900 people have died from boxing related injuries over the past seventy years or so – it is, therefore, no surprise that all medical authorities have called for the sport to be banned. The American Medical Association puts the case very clearly “All forms of boxing are a public demonstration of interpersonal violence which is unique among sporting activities. Victory is obtained by inflicting on the opponent such a measure of physical injury that the opponent is unable to continue, or which at least can be seen to be significantly greater than is received in return. This particularly applies to professional boxing”. But it is the individual cases that really bring the barbarity into sharp relief. Take, for example, that of the former world Middleweight champion, Gerald McClellan, who sustained a brain injury in a fight in 1995 as a consequence of which he is now deaf, blind and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Yes such things could happen accidentally in other sports – but in boxing, as the AMA rightly says, the causing of such injury is deliberate.

There are huge purses in boxing and  it is not surprising that the sport survives despite all the medical evidence against it? And is it surprising that it is the sport with historically more corruption and criminality in it than any other? The history of professional boxing is littered with the debris of fixed fights, dysfunctional and greedy promoters and crime syndicates.
The violence of a boxing match is in many ways a metaphor for conflict resolution in society as a whole. It is part and parcel of the same thing which led the Republican nominee to the US Presidency, John McCain, to “sing” “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran,” to the tune of the Beach Boys “Barbara Ann” when asked what he would do about Iran. It is part of the same world of violence that led to the deaths’ of 33 people at Virginia Tech and yet has a “National Rifle Association” which says “Private citizens benefit from handguns…”

But sport doesn’t have to be part of this world at all. Sport should set an example to society not reflect back its darker images. The charter of the Olympic Games says that “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Boxing fails this test.
 

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