Boxing has been a fixture at the Olympic Games since the ancient Greek pugilists nearly 3,000 years ago, one of the original sporting events contested at the games. Yet it now finds itself so mired in scandal that it faces elimination in advance of the 2028 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Weightlifting, contested at the Summer Olympic Games since 1920, has struggled to curtail doping among its athletes, and as a result, it, too, was excluded from the initial list of 28 sports slated for 2028. Meanwhile, skateboarding, surfing, and climbing, quintessentially modern sports that focus entirely on individual performances against inhuman and indifferent challenges, such as big waves or obstacle-filled courses, have become regular Olympic offerings.
Core Olympic sports are facing extinction. And that poses a larger challenge to the Olympic Games.
On the surface, boxing and weightlifting have done little to merit continued inclusion. Olympic sports are overseen by individual athletic federations, not a centralized association, and both boxing and weightlifting have struggled to get their houses in order. Olympic boxing, which has witnessed dozens of unfair decisions along the lines of future star boxer Roy Jones Jr. losing a gold medal match decision at Seoul in 1988 to a Korean opponent he knocked to the canvas and outlanded 86 punches to 32, is reeling from a scandal that involved multiple fixed bouts and bribed referees at the 2016 and 2012 events. The International Weightlifting Federation, which oversees qualifying for the two Olympic lifts, snatch and clean and jerk, will oversee a reduction from 14 medal-eligible weight classes in 2020 to 10 in 2024 amid continued concerns about a failure to set new world records in existing weight classes. But that failure itself is likely due to the absence of widespread doping perpetrated by the likes of China and Russia — the latter which, due to repeated offenses, no longer even fields a team allowed to carry the country’s flag.
Perhaps an audience of passive television viewers or streamers, raised on a steady diet of video games such as California Games and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, would prefer to watch young men and women “hang 10” in swimsuits or “pop a sick ollie” in loose wide-leg jeans and Vans sneakers. These sports certainly produce nice visuals for television and demand considerable balance and agility from their participants, but they are fundamentally trivial, no-stakes affairs in which one competes against an indifferent environment. “The degradation of sport consists not in its being taken seriously, but in its trivialization,” Christopher Lasch wrote in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism.
Boxing and weightlifting are old competitions, nearly as old as recorded time even if the equipment has evolved considerably. At the ancient Olympic Games, “victorious boxers expected to be battered” and “the sight of one whose face did not display signs of damage was unusual,” explained historian David Potter in his book The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium. The legendary Greek wrestler Milo of Croton gained as much fame for his ability to press heavy objects overhead, from cows to men to logs, as anything he did within a properly contested Olympic wrestling match — the urge to test one’s skills by lifting something that seemingly could not be budged, such as a huge stone, and thereafter bringing it overhead remains a near-universal impulse across human cultures.
To the Greeks, an Olympic event was an agon, a contest that enabled one to prove arete, or excellence. To the Romans, it was a ludus, a game in which competitors could demonstrate risk and dare against the uncertainty of face-to-face or side-by-side competition. For those who have spent any time whatsoever in the sporting arena, there are activities that provide these challenges more readily than others. Wrestling, the sport that consumed much of my own youth and young manhood, was targeted for elimination by the International Olympic Committee in 2013, a move that occasioned howls of protest from its great champions, a few of whom returned their medals or engaged in hunger strikes.
While not experiencing the same scandals as boxing or weightlifting, freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling had become notoriously slow affairs. The sport experienced a rebirth in 2020, with a new slate of talented women swelling the long-underrepresented side of that sport, another recurring IOC complaint, and rules changes promoting fast-paced matches of the sort that American heavyweight Gable Steveson won en route to a gold medal.
Another concern, unstated but certainly much in the public consciousness, may be motivating the decisions to jettison weightlifting and boxing. The individual athletic federations, rather than the IOC itself, determine eligibility to compete in these sports, so transgender athletes may soon enter the ranks as this segment of the population grows. Transitioning represents a detriment rather than a benefit for those assigned female at birth attempting to compete in male categories and an increasingly recognized benefit for transgender females who complete male puberty. Laurel Hubbard, a New Zealand heavyweight, was born male but competed as a woman in 2020, though failing to complete any lifts.
Hubbard, however, was not an elite weightlifter prior to transitioning. Anthony Roberts, author of Anabolic Steroids: Ultimate Research Guide and a frequent collaborator of mine, initially accepted the earlier research indicating that merely reducing testosterone levels over a one- or two-year period would be sufficient to reduce any advantages transgender females possessed, but he later reconsidered. “It’s clear that increased bone density, height, and so forth doesn’t go away even many years into the transition,” he tells me. “And when a skilled athlete with a legitimate track record in men’s sports transitions later in life, we will see some real numbers go up on the board.” This appears to be the case with University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, an All-Ivy League swimmer on UPenn’s men’s team a few years earlier who is now threatening women’s collegiate records in both sprint and distance swimming events. Such advantages, Roberts noted, would be mitigated if not entirely eliminated in sports such as surfing and skateboarding, which prioritize coordination and balance over explosive power.
Even with these storms gathering on the horizon, perhaps it is not too late for these sports. Boxing could be salvaged with something as simple as computer-based judging of the sort used to judge rounds in the Professional Fighters League, a new mixed martial arts league. Weightlifting faces a myriad of challenges, but there are several directions in which the sport could go. One would be unlimited doping and single-division, open-gender competition for male and female athletes, but it seems unlikely that the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency, with so much invested in drug control as both safety measure and “fair play” marketing, would go that route, even if it might address the question of transgender participation as well. Another route would simply be more rigorous testing and additional medal classes for transgender competitors, though the testing costs money and time already in short supply during a pandemic in which Olympic drug testing was already laxer than usual and transgender segregation would challenge shibboleths about equality and inclusion.
In any case, the loss of these two venerable sports would deal the Olympics a severe blow.
Oliver Bateman is a journalist, historian, and co-host of the What’s Left? podcast. Visit his website: www.oliverbateman.com.