This is not the only change to Olympic boxing this year — the point system has been altered and three professional fighters are competing for the first time in 112 years — but the absence of headgear has been the most visible, and the most contentious, given how much concussions remain a hot-button issue in sports. The move has stirred quite the reaction from the far corners of the Internet, too, with the chatter ranging from athlete safety to television ratings to sexism.
The AIBA first introduced boxing headgear to the Olympics in 1984 on the heels of a public relations crisis. It was an attempt to quell public outcry over the savage nature of the sport following the November 1982 death of South Korean lightweight Kim Duk-Koo, who succumbed to injuries following a bloody fight with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.
The sport faced another wave of criticism from fans and researchers in the medical field just eight days following that incident, after heavyweight Larry Holmes put a brutal beating on Randall “Tex” Cobb in a 15-round fight. Both were nationally televised fights that changed the course of boxing and forced the AIBA to introduce headgear to amateur fighting. While the protection prevented cuts, many within the sport speculated for years whether headgear really kept fighters’ brains safer, arguing that the protection obstructed the view of boxers and encouraged them to lead with their heads and to brawl more.
The chairman of the AIBA medical commission, Charles Butler, told the Wall Street Journal in 2013 that his research had found that boxers were more likely to suffer concussions with the headgear than without it. According to that report, Butler collected data on roughly 15,000 boxer rounds and determined that in the 7,352 rounds that took place with boxers wearing headgear, the rate of concussion was 0.38 percent, compared with 0.17 percent per boxer per round in the 7,545 rounds without headgear. While Butler did warn in that his findings were “preliminary,” according to the report, it represented enough evidence to warrant a ban on headgear for AIBA-sanctioned fights. The findings also led the International Olympic Committee to officially remove headgear from the Rio games in March.
But there remains a debate in the medical community over the safety of headgear and amateur boxers, according to a report from the New York Times, including from prominent neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Cantu.
“The idea that headgear prevents concussions is ludicrous to begin with,” Cantu said in an interview with the Times. “It would be great if it did, but to say that taking it off will lead to fewer concussions doesn’t make sense, either.”
Some online viewers have shrieked at the new rule, which obviously humanizes the fighters more and makes the sport more telegenic, whatever the cost of that may be.
According to the aforementioned Wall Street Journal report, Butler has contended that concussions aren’t as much of an issue for women and youth boxers because they often lack the power to cause brain injuries with their punches, although there is no research cited on that end. Women boxers have continued to wear headgear in Rio, which has added another layer of criticism to the issue within the Twittersphere.