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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The 1988 Israeli Amateur Boxing Scandal

The Olympic dreams of three Israeli amateur boxers dangled by a thread. AIBA, the organization that oversaw Olympic boxing, held the Israelis' hopes in their hands. Yehuda Ben Haim, Yacov Shmuel, and Aharon Jacobashvili were about to be punished, their life-long ambitions stripped from them, because of something they didn't do.

In June of 1988, a team of Israeli amateur boxers from the Golden Gloves Club in Nazareth traveled to South Africa for a month-long tour. A group of Jewish South Africans had invited the team. Future investigations would show none of the three Olympic hopefuls were present on the tour.

Apartheid, a system of racial separation, became the law of the land in South Africa in the late 1940s. In 1964, South Africa's invitation to the Tokyo Olympics was revoked when the country insisted on sending a delegation of all-white athletes. Later that year, a broad international sporting boycott was implemented as a way to put pressure on the country to change. This boycott meant different things to different sporting agencies, but to AIBA, it amounted to a total ban of its members from traveling to South Africa. In 1970, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) formally expelled South Africa from its ranks.

"Nobody thought it was possible, but here they are," a South African newspaper called The Citizen gloated after the Israelis' arrival in late June. "And there will be other teams in the very near future." The Israeli boxers and officials all used aliases during the trip. Even the team fought under a pseudonym, using Jim Scott Internationals to divert anti-apartheid activists from the scent.

When the team arrived back in Israel, two Tel Aviv newspapers reported on the trip. The president of the Israeli boxing federation, Shimshon Am-Shalem, denied any knowledge of the South African excursion. The only problem was Am-Shalem's wife, Dahlia, had led the delegation on its tour. Months later when rendering its verdict on whether Shimshon knew about the trip, AIBA's president Anwar Chowdhry argued, "They are not separated. The couple is happily together. Thus, we conclude that the Israeli boxing association was instrumental in sending this team to South Africa." If only their relationship hadn't been so loving, Shimshon might have been spared.

The Israeli Sports Federation banned all of the boxers and officials who traveled to South Africa including Dahlia Am-Shalem. Her husband was dismissed as the boxing federation's president. That seemed to cool the scandal's heat. That is, until an ex-boxing coach of the Israeli team, who had been fired following the 1984 Olympics, reignited the issue and pushed AIBA to take action.

As of September 13, 1988- four days before the Olympics were set to start- the Los Angeles Times reported that Uri Arek, the head of Israeli's Olympic delegation, confirmed that four boxers who had gone to South Africa had been banned for life. Three days later, it was revealed that twelve Israeli boxers and five officials had taken part in the tour. The Israeli Sports Federation banned all 17.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the IOC, stated, "In my opinion, the Israelis have taken the proper action. Whether it's enough for AIBA, I do not know."

It wasn't enough.

Chowdhry, AIBA's head, argued the bans could easily be lifted by the Israelis at any time. AIBA banned all 17 and threatened to suspend Israel from the organization for at least a year, putting the Olympic dreams of Ben Haim, Shmuel, and Jacobashvili in doubt.

The day before the Olympics were to begin, Chowdhry announced, "Because of the action of the Israeli association, it has to be punished. We have to put a stop to this nonsense. We will suspend for life those who went to South Africa." He cited the "deliberately false and incorrect information" the Israeli boxing federation had provided AIBA during its investigation.

Dahlia Am-Shalem would later express her frustration at being made one of the scapegoats. She told David Horovitz of The Jerusalem Report that local authorities knew about the tour in advance.

"We took six Arabs and six Jews, and they fought Jews, whites, blacks. It was a real boost for racial harmony," Dahlia explained.

One of the boxers who accompanied Am-Shalem was Johar Abu-Lashin, who would become the subject of a documentary called Raging Dove. An Arab, Abu-Lashin was nicknamed "the Israeli Kid," fought with a Star of David on his trunks, and proudly sung Hatikvah. "My nationality is Israeli, and these are the symbols of my country. But I'm also an Arab, and I'm proud of that too."

Dahlia believed she and her husband were pushed out because some Israeli officials didn't agree with the Am-Shalems' willingness to promote Jews and Arabs equally. Though some felt Shimshon was dictatorial in his hold on Israeli amateur boxing and charges of nepotism followed Dahlia, she remained optimistic in the power of boxing to act as a force for good, "You take two boxers: one white, one black; one Arab, one Jew; whatever and whoever wins the fight, you'll always see them embrace at the end. Boxing breeds mutual respect. It binds people together."

Chowdhry didn't buy the racial harmony argument. "I have no proof, but yes, I think it was money," he theorized. "I have a 146 other countries [in AIBA] that they could have competed against to get ready for the Olympics. And they go to South Africa. What else could it be?"

There was talk that if the three Israeli boxers were barred from the Olympics, the entire Israeli Olympic team would boycott. That would rankle IOC head Samaranch, the U.S., and host South Korea. With the Olympics about to start, Chowdhry finally conceded, "Until the case is finalized, the three Israeli boxers can take part in the competition."

An utter state of elation for the three boxers quickly evaporated for one when the draw was announced. Yom Kippur began the evening of September 20 and ended when the sun fell the next day. Light flyweight Yehuda Ben Haim had been given a first round bye, but his second round fight was scheduled for September 21.

According to Jay Weiner of The Star Trinune (of Minnesota), and reported on by USA Today and the Seattle Times, Ben Haim had one chance. His scheduled opponent was Mahjoub M'Jirih from Morocco. Morocco did not allow its athletes to compete against Israelis at that time. There was a scenario in which M'Jirih boycotted the match, Ben Haim weighed in before sundown on the 20th, and the Israeli would win by walkover.

It's an interesting story, but it never happened. Additional research suggests M'Jirih was not on the same side of the bracket as Ben Haim. Weiner even wrote a follow up story to declare M'Jirih had shown up to the weigh-in and would win by walkover. After receiving a first round bye, M'Jirih actually fought and defeated Mongolian Ochiryn Demberel in the second round. He won his next fight and lost in the quarterfinals.

However, the real scenario produced similar suspense. Algeria's Yacine Sheikh fought El Salvador's Henry Martinez in the first round. The winner of that fight was scheduled to face Ben Haim. Algeria also did not allow its athletes to face Israelis, so if Sheikh won, Ben Haim could have prevailed in a boycott-induced walkover.

Arek, the head of Israel's Olympic delegation, wasn't going to push his luck on the Yom Kippur issue after the boxers were allowed to compete. "It is our problem, and no one else's. We don't want to bother anyone with our problem. We do not resent the Olympics." Beginning three and half years earlier, the Israelis had tried to have events in various sports moved to different dates but to no avail.

Unfortunately for Ben Haim, Martinez, who would later fight Johnny Tapia as a pro, beat Sheikh. El Salvador had no problem with its athletes fighting Israelis. Yehuda was disqualified when he refused to show up for the fight against Martinez, denying him the chance to improve upon his second round finish in the 1984 Olympics.

Regardless of the sincerity of Ben Haim's religious devotion, he didn't really have a choice. Sailing brothers Dan and Ran Torten were the only two Israelis to compete on Yom Kippur. The Israeli Olympic Committee kicked them off the team, sent them home, and subsequently banned them for five years for the act. After much trouble, the suspension was eventually reduced.

Jacobashvili, a middleweight, met Sven Ottke of West Germany on September 19. Ottke, who would fight in three Olympics and win a world title belt at super middleweight during an undefeated pro career, won the match convincingly.

Shmuel, a featherweight, received a bye in the first round. Fighting on September 22, he stopped his Sundanese opponent a minute into their bout. In the tournament's third round, Shmuel cruised past an opponent from the Cook Islands on September 26. Two days later, he dropped a decision in the quarterfinals to the eventual gold medalist Giovanni Parisi, who would go on to win a world title trinket as a pro at 140 pounds.

On September 30, 1988 AIBA rendered its final verdict. Israel would be expelled for five years. That meant two missed world championships and no 1992 Olympics. "We want to put an end to any visits in the future [to South Africa] by any of our member associations," Chowdhry declared.

The ban for Israel would only last a year. On October 2, 1989, Israel was reinstated, but the damage was done. Shimshon Am-Shalem, devastated by his dismissal as president of the Israeli boxing federation, suffered a heart attack and died shortly after Israel's reinstatement. The top Israeli amateurs all turned pro. Ben Haim won his lone pro fight in late 1988. Shmuel was 7-0 in the paid ranks. Abu-Lashin won a couple of minor world title trinkets as a pro and finished with a 25-6-1 record with 19 KOs.

The ban devastated the amateur boxing program in Israel. Four Israeli boxers fought in the Olympics during the 1980s. No Israeli has boxed even a full Olympic round in the 34 years since AIBA imposed its sentence on Israel. Vladislav Neiman was stopped in the first round of his first fight in the 1996 Olympics. He is the only boxer to represent Israel in the Games since 1988.

In January of 1994, South Africa sent a multi-racial team of eleven boxers to Israel. Three months later, Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa, the culmination of a decades-long struggle internally and internationally against apartheid.


Alfano, Peter. "12 Israeli Boxers Are Banned for Life." New York Times. Sep 16, 1988. D21.
Ben-David. Calev. "Raging Dove." The Jerusalem Report. Aug 27, 1992. Pg 22.
Ben-Tal, Danny. "AIBA Reinstates Israeli Boxing." Jerusalem Post. Oct 5, 1989. Pg 11.
Ben-Tal, Danny. "Savage Sentence Imposed on Tortens." Jerusalem Post. march 8, 1989. Pg. 11.
Dwyre, Bill. "Israeli Boxers Allowed to Compete, but South Africa Issue Flares." Los Angeles Times. Sep. 16, 1988. D7.
Gordin, Joel. "Israeli, South Africans Resurrect 'Noble Art'." Jerusalem Post. Jan 23, 1994. Pg. 08.
Harvey, Randy. "Summer Olympics Notebook: North Korea Insincere in Its Request to Act as Host, Samaranch Says." Los Angeles Times. Sep 13, 1988. 
Horovitz, David. "Back in the Ring." The Jerusalem Report. Jun 3, 1994. Pg 24.
Hynes, Mary. "Summer Olympics Boxing: High-tech approach for boxing." The Globe and Mail. Sep 30, 1988. A21.
"Israeli Trio Has 8-Day Grace Period." The Washington Post. Sep 16, 1988. C04.
"The Seoul Olympics; Israel Is Expelled By Boxing Group." New York Times. Sep 30, 1988. A19.

Articles claiming M'Jirih was to Fight Ben Haim:
Weiner, Jay. "Putting God before the gold: Israeli athletes to observe Yom Kippur despite Olympic schedule." Star Tribune. Sep 20, 1988. 01A.
Weiner, Jay. "Israeli boxer disqualified." Star Tribune. Sep 21, 1988. 08C.
"Israeli boxer loses Yom Kippur bout." USA Today. Sep 22, 1988. 07E.
"Religion, Politics, Games Don't Mix: Religion Sidelines Israeli, but Politics May Give Him a Win." Seattle Times. September 20, 1988. C5.

Notes on sources:
The sources listed above did not always agree on the basic facts. The Jerusalem Post articles seemed to be the least reliable with what went on during the tour, perhaps because they were written years later. The NY Times claimed the team's pseudonym was "John Scott Internationals" while the LA Times said it was "Scott John International." I don't know which it is. Even the Israeli amateur boxing organization was called several different names, which is why I left it lowercase. Israeli names are also spelled many different ways. I tried to find how each individual spells their name in English and write it that way.

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