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IOC allowed an Olympic boxing qualifier in London to go on despite cornavirus warnings

An Olympic qualifying boxing tournament was held in London on March 14-16.
An Olympic qualifying boxing tournament was held in London on March 14-16.Adam Davy/Associated Press

At least seven people tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month after taking part in a London boxing tournament to qualify for the Tokyo Games, an event that was allowed to begin by the International Olympic Committee despite widespread cancellations and warnings about the pandemic.

Turkey’s boxing federation believes three of its boxers and a coach caught the coronavirus while attending the European qualifying tournament that started March 14. Croatian officials say two coaches and one boxer were infected at the same event, which was canceled after three days of competition — two with spectators present.

The tournament began even as the virus was already present in Britain and major sporting events such as Premier League soccer and NBA games were abruptly put on hold worldwide.

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The boxing tournament was held by an IOC task force at a time when the organization’s president, Thomas Bach, and Tokyo officials were clinging to the idea of holding the Games as scheduled in July. The Olympics were postponed earlier this week until 2021, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said Friday that he had the coronavirus and was suffering from mild symptoms.

"Athlete health was absolutely not considered first — that’s the whole reason for our frustration,” said Eyup Gozgec, the Turkish Boxing Federation president, in an interview through an interpreter. "Why did they let this event take place when the world was already on edge with this global outbreak for the past three months?”

The three boxers, Necat Ekinci, Serhat Guler and Busenaz Surmeneli, as well as the head coach Seyfullah Dumlupinar, tested positive after they traveled home to Turkey from London, Gozgec said. The entire traveling party was immediately placed in quarantine upon arrival, and was still waiting on the results of some tests, he added.

The BBC, citing an official from the Croatian Boxing Federation, reported that two coaches and an athlete from Croatia were "stable” and had been quarantined after contracting the virus. The team’s epidemiologist believed they contracted the virus in London.

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Tomo Kadic, a coach on the team, posted a video on Facebook to confirm he had tested positive. Boxer Toni Filipi later told a local radio station that he, too, was infected, but was already feeling better.

For the IOC, the episode comes at a bruising time. It was heavily criticized by athletes who thought it took too much time to make an inevitable move to postpone the Tokyo Games.

In a statement it sent on behalf of its boxing task force — a group it set up after suspending boxing’s global federation over governance failures last year — the IOC said it found no evidence that the athletes contracted the virus at the qualifying tournament.

The task force "is not aware of any link between the competition and the infection,” the IOC said. "Many participants were in independently organized training camps in Italy, Great Britain and in their home countries before the competition started on 14 March 2020 and have returned home a while ago so it is not possible to know the source of infection.”

But Gozgec is convinced that is where his countrymen fell ill. He said he has written to other federations to see if their athletes who were at the event are displaying symptoms of the virus.

Even before the Boxing Road to Tokyo event was called off, competitors complained about the risk of infection. The first two days of the event were held with spectators present, then the event was moved behind closed doors for the third day, on March 16. That was the final day of action for a tournament that was originally scheduled to run through March 24.

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Britain was one of the last European countries to put up restrictions against mass gatherings, including sporting events. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus threat a pandemic, and on March 12, Johnson called for a "delay phase” in Britain but did not officially ban mass gatherings.

Soccer’s leaders in the country called a halt to matches before a government ban, after players and coaching staff started to test positive for COVID-19. The IOC said its qualifying tournament had followed the guidelines in place at the time, and that it took precautions to minimize risks.

"Safeguarding the well-being of the athletes, officials and all other participants has always been a top priority,” the IOC said.

Another boxing qualifier was moved from Wuhan, China, in February to Jordan in early March by the same task force.

Gozgec painted a much different picture.

He said the teams participating in the event were housed in the same hotel, where at times they needed to jam together into one elevator because a second one had broken down. All the delegations dined together and at no point, Gozgec said, were products such as hand sanitizers made available — even though at the time, the British government had been pushing a national message focusing on hand hygiene.

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"The problems started from the airport, once we landed on UK soil,” Gozgec said. "At the hotel, the training facilities, why didn’t they take the necessary measures to meet hygienic standards so that none of the people, athletes, coaches, officials involved would not catch coronavirus?”

Once the event was called off, the Turkish delegation scrambled to get home, with Turkey banning flights from the UK on the same day. Gozgec said the government added an extra Turkish Airlines flight from London to get them home and into quarantine. Some of Turkey’s contingent, Gozgec said, started to show symptoms after three or four days.

He warned that others may have contracted the virus: "We are waiting for the test results.”