Why Are There Two Bronze Medal Winners in Olympic Boxing?

The reason for this actually makes a lot of sense.

02 August 2021, 11:55am

After Nesthy Petecio of the Philippines won the quarterfinals of her Olympic featherweight boxing match last Wednesday, Filipinos celebrated intensely – they are the loudest virtual fans in Tokyo, according to Facebook – because Petecio was “assured at least bronze.”

News headlines bannered her win and announced that she was going to take home a medal for making the semifinals alone, leaving quite a number of fans confused. 

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How was Petecio, who still had two fights left if she were to win a gold medal, assured of taking home a bronze? In fact, how were all four of the boxers who made it to the semi-finals assured of taking home a medal when there are only traditionally three medals up for grabs: a gold, a silver and a bronze? 

In Olympic boxing – and in contact sports at the games more generally – unlike other sports, there are technically four medals up for grabs: a gold, a silver and two bronze medals.

Boxing is one of the oldest of Olympic events, dating back to 7th century Greece. But much has changed since the ancient era of no rounds, weight classes or time limits. Can you imagine the damage they did to their opponents back then when the only way to win was via knockout or surrender? (Diagoras of Rhodes, one famed fighter who won at the games in 464 BC, was said to have just let his opponents punch him repeatedly until he found a way to knock them out.)

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It has of course gotten a bit safer in the ring since the days of Diagoras, even if some of the changes have been pretty recent.

Previously, boxers who made it to the semi-finals had to defeat their opponents to have a chance to fight for gold. Winners advanced to the gold medal match, as they still do today, and the two losers of their fight would have to battle for bronze. At least until the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

On the recommendation of the International Boxing Association (AIBA), losers of the two semi-final bouts did not have to compete for third place. The shift grew out of growing concerns over the health risks for fighters. The AIBA reasoned that “there was too little time for recovery for the losing semi-finalists between their semi-final and a bronze medal playoff,” according to an Olympic primer on the topic.

Though the practice was adopted in 1952, fighters who lost in the semi-finals initially received Olympic diplomas, but were retroactively awarded actual bronze medals when the change was formalized in 1970. It has been the same ever since.

Other contact sports like judo, taekwondo, wrestling and karate abide by similar rules with slight twists more broadly known as the repechage system, from the French word for rescue.

Apart from the physical rest and lowered risk of injury, the system offers a little extra chance for athletes to medal. Securing a spot in the semi-finals means being assured of at least a bronze medal. 

Petecio eventually defeated her opponent in the semifinals, Irma Testa of Italy, and will compete for gold in the finals against Sena Irie of Japan.

That’s a much better outcome than knockouts and surrenders, in our book.

Follow Anthony Esguerra on Twitter.

Tagged:

olympics, Tokyo 2020

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