Olympic boxing without headgear still a divisive issue
Canada's Mandy Bujold against the move in women's boxing
By Greg Beacham, The Associated Press
Although Antonio Vargas still thinks about the cut that nearly ended his Olympic dream, his unprotected head will be clear when he steps into the ring in Rio de Janeiro.
Vargas grew up sparring and competing in protective headgear, so he had never been cut in a fight before his face split open in that bloody loss at the U.S. Olympic team trials seven months ago. The gifted flyweight from Florida had to fight his way back through the challengers' bracket, surviving to earn a spot on the team.
Cuts haven't been a major concern in Olympic boxing since 1980, but they will be a constant danger in Rio, where the 250 male fighters will box without headgear for the first time since Moscow.
Fighters have had three years to adjust to the change, and they've adapted with the same tenacity that made them boxers in the first place.
"I'm always going to do what I have to do," Vargas said. "I don't think it's really changed my style. I'll still have the same style going into the Olympics. I just have to be careful."
Bujold against the change
AIBA's changes are expected to continue after Rio, too. Women's boxing kept the headgear for its second Olympic tournament because AIBA says it doesn't have enough concussion data on women, but most female fighters expect AIBA to remove their headgear next year.
"I will continue to box as long as there is headgear involved," Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold told CBCSports.ca in April. Bujold initially said she would retire if the no-headgear rule ever took effect.
"I believe AIBA is taking the right precautions."
The bulky protective pads were placed on Olympic fighters' heads in 1984 because organizers wanted to improve safety, and they've been pulled off the fighters heading to Rio for ostensibly the same reason.
The 28-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., feared that the potential new rule would take boxing in a dangerous direction and outlined her concerns in a Player's Own Voice piece she penned for CBCSports.ca back in February.
"I believe this rule change will diminish interest in the sport and cause parents to keep their children out of boxing," wrote Bujold, a nine-time national champion.
Safety secondary to appearance?
The International Boxing Association (AIBA) made a highly visible alteration to its sport when it removed the headgear ahead of the 2013 world championships. Many fighters are excited for fans to see a sport that looks more like the pros, but the move is still criticized by other fighters and coaches who believe safety has been made secondary to appearance, particularly because of the high potential for cuts in a short, multi-fight tournament.
"I don't think it was a good idea, taking off the headgear, because we're still amateur," U.S. light flyweight Nico Hernandez said. "I got cut on both eyes before. I got stitches and stuff from head-butts. I just don't think it's as safe for the amateur boxers. But I also like it, because you can have more peripheral vision and you don't get as hot. I've had a lot of fights without now, so I'm used to it."
In its lengthy quest to become a professional boxing promoter with control over the Olympics, AIBA went to great lengths to establish a scientific backing for its decision to drop headgear. The IOC also cited research to support the notion that the bulky head guards reduced the number of knockouts and stoppages, thereby reducing concussions.
Their conclusions have been disputed by other scientists and fighters alike, but the benefits of removing headgear go beyond any concussion data in an inherently dangerous sport: Quite simply, the removal of headgear allows television audiences to see the fighters' faces.
With files from CBC Sports