Byun Jong-il | Seoul 1988

Last night’s events on the fencing piste and a cascade of NBC’s failures recall a particularly unsavory controversy 24 years earlier. 

People criticize the Olympic Games for being showy and expensive, and indeed, their legacies are often mixed. Sometimes, they bring some benefits: in 1987, faced with protests calling for democracy, South Korea’s ruling junta gave in, to prevent spoiling the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics.

When the games came, however, this euphoria was dampened — not least by the opening ceremony conducted in scotching summer midday heat when doves released were burnt to crisp by the Olympic flame (yes that happened). Soon, more devastatingly, allegations of match-fixing swirled, culminating with the Korean boxer Byun Jong-il setting the dubious of Olympic records for a sit-down protest.

The bantamweight boxer lost a close decision when he was penalized two points for head butts. After the match, several Korean boxing officials entered the ring, threw chairs at and punched the New Zealand referee. But that was just the beginning of a 67 minute sit-down protest by Byun. He stayed there for so long that officials eventually turned off the lights and left him in darkness.

As tactful and considerate as ever, NBC followed the entire protest, even using split screens to show the boxer in the ring during other events. Their coverage, as well as those of American newspapers which termed Byun “petulant”, caused a huge uproar in South Korea, where relationships were already strained by the presence of American bases and by the US Olympians’ roudy partying. The Dong-A Ilbo, a leading daily, wrote “This is a bad omen for future Korean-American relations. The American press has to know that this kind of distorted reporting is hurting the dignity of Korean people”. Strong editorials denounced US and Japanese print media, while even the Korean government officials denounced the coverage as unfair and insensitive. Soon afterwards, the NBC staff ordered not to wear their logos lest they be attacked.

The Koreans insisted that Byun did the right thing by sitting down and protesting a decision he didn’t agree with, but it transpired that the protest had equally to do with surprise as with disappointment. He had been secretly promised a medal by the South Korean authorities who had many shady dealings in rigging boxing. In an equally shocking final of the light-middleweight division, Roy Jones Jr. lost to Park Si-Hun, even though Jones completely demolished the South Korean, who had arrived to the final with five(!) consecutive disputed victories.

(Seoul’s corruptions got an entire chapter in the go-to book on Olympic corruption, The New Lords of the Rings.)

Ali vs. Liston


The first Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay fight in 1964 when Liston was the world heavyweight champion ended in controversy: during the fourth round, Clay started complaining that there was something burning in his eyes and that he could not see. It has been theorized that a substance used to stop Liston’s cuts from bleeding caused the irritation. Clay won the match on a TKO.

A rematch was set in May 25th 1965, this time with Liston as challenger; Clay was now Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam the previous year. Due to the fightt being staged in a small auditorium in remote Lewiston, Maine, only 2,500 fans were present, setting the all-time record for the lowest attendance for a heavyweight championship fight. (It remains the only heavyweight title fight held in the state of Maine.)

Midway through the first round, Liston fell to the canvas; Ali refused to retreat to a neutral corner, standing over his fallen opponent, gesturing and yelling at him, “Get up and fight, sucker!” Neil Leifer, a 5’6″ reporter who covered many boxing matches, struggled to capture this moment, which has since become one of the iconic images in sports history. Sports Illustrated used the photo to cover their “The Century’s Greatest Sports Photos” special issue. Leifer thinks it is both the triumph of the powerful man and the vulnerability of the fallen that combined to make this photo a lingering masterpiece.

The blow that ended the match became known as “the phantom punch,” so named because most people at ringside did not see it. There were allegations that Liston was blackmailed by the Mafia or the Nation of Islam extremists to forfeit the match. AliListonSI

Louis vs Schmeling


It is one of the most famous boxing matches in history. In 1936, German boxer Max Schmeling traveled to New York to face up-and-coming African-American boxer Joe Louis, who was undefeated and considered unbeatable. Upon his arrival, Schmeling claimed that he had found a flaw in Louis’ style, and surprised the boxing world by handing Louis his first defeat. Schmeling returned to Germany on the Hindenburg as a hero. The German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels proclaimed Schmeling’s victory a triumph for Germany and Nazism. The SS weekly journal Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps) commented: “Schmeling’s victory was not only sport. It was a question of prestige for our race.”

The rematch came, at Yankee Stadium, on June 22, 1938. By then, a second world war was clearly looming on the horizon, and the fight was viewed worldwide as symbolic battle for superiority between two likely adversaries: in American pre-fight publicity, Schmeling was cast as the Nazi warrior, while Louis was portrayed as a defender of American ideals.

The fight was broadcast by radio all over the United States (on NBC with Clem McCarthy) and Europe. Louis won by a technical knockout late in the first round. There is controversy up to this day about the fight, as Schmeling’s side complained strongly that the German boxer had repeatedly received illegal kidney punches. Some pictures seem to confirm this claim. If referee Arthur Donovan had stopped the match because of this, Schmeling could have won the world title on a disqualification for the second time. Donovan, however, as well the New York boxing authorities, validated Louis’s victory.

Schmeling was branded as a Nazi by many boxing fans. However, his manager was a Jew and in 1938, during the Kristallnacht, Schmeling hid two teenage sons of a Jewish friend in his Berlin hotel room, protecting them at great risk to himself. The two boys were eventually smuggled out of Germany with Schmeling’s help. Ironically, Schmeling and Louis later became good friends; Schmeling would visit Louis every year and he paid for Louis’ funeral after Louis was left penniless by the IRS, and was a pallbearer at that funeral