SHANGHAI: The International Boxing Association (AIBA) on Monday denied accusations it is trying to take over the sport, following a controversial decision to let professional boxers fight at the Rio Olympics.
At an AIBA congress in Lausanne in Switzerland last month, 95 percent of delegates voted to allow professional boxers for the first time ever to enter the competition.
The decision was met with widespread derision in the boxing world, with many making their views clear even before the change was made.
AIBA president Wu Ching-Kuo said the organisation had no plans to take over the sport and allowing professionals to compete in Olympic boxing was a great step forward for it.
The official, who is Taiwanese, made the comments at a press conference to announce a joint venture to promote boxing between AIBA and Alisports, an arm of Chinese internet giant Alibaba which is owned by entrepreneur Jack Ma.
“We never said we want to take over boxing. We just want to open the door because no one can stop athletes from going to the Olympics, that is a fundamental concept,” Wu said.
“If the athlete says ‘My dream is to go to the Olympics’, then we just want to open the door.”
In May legendary boxing promoter Bob Arum told AFP the plan to introduce professional boxers was “total madness” and would result in “serious injuries”.
Arum believed the decision was commercially orientated, with AIBA seeing more lucrative opportunities, and part of a wider power grab by the association.
But Wu rejected the charges saying that “only the best AIBA boxers” would be facing professional fighters.
Speaking about the new relationship with Alibaba, Wu predicted a bright future for boxing in China, which he described as a “noble sport” that could “prepare youth for the challenges which they face in society”.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made the development of the country’s ailing football team a national priority, but Wu did not see this as a barrier to the development of boxing.
“President Xi Jinping loves boxing — wait and see,” he told AFP.
Alibaba, which owns a 37 percent stake in Asian football champions Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, launched Alisports last September to develop the sporting economy in “an innovative way with digital thinking”, according to its website.
In the months since then Alisports has signed deals to stream NFL American football games in China and sponsor FIFA’s Club World Cup, and announced a partnership with basketball’s governing body FIBA.
The Chinese government said in 2014 it aimed to grow the country’s sports market to more than five trillion yuan ($760 billion) by 2025 to become “a vital driver for sustainable economic and social development”.
Many Chinese companies are seeking to ride the wave, with high-profile deals including property behemoth Wanda’s acquisition of Swiss sports marketing group Infront and a share of Spanish football club Atletico Madrid.
A consortium led by state-backed China Media Capital has bought a $400 million stake in Premier League giants Manchester City.