Michael Houston

"It could be an interesting one, certainly won't be boring," is a paraphrase of what I was told in the office when it was known I would be going to the Women's World Boxing Championships in Istanbul.

Punches were not pulled in the ring, and outside of the Başakşehir Youth and Sports Facility in Istanbul it was the same case. While I was starting my day with a croissant and questionable breakfast items like French fries, there were delegates sitting just a few tables over from me, knowing what was about to unravel at an Extraordinary Congress, taking place in the middle of the World Championships.

At the time that I was notified of my trip to Turkey, incumbent International Boxing Association (IBA) President Umar Kremlev was expected to run unopposed. The next thing I know, the Dutch Boxing Federation President e was challenging, despite looking as if he would focus on his campaign on a parallel attempt to become President of the European Boxing Confederation.

The Dutchman lost that contest to Greece's Ioannis Filippatos in the second round of voting, after being tied 23-23 initially. In the second round, Filippatos won 25-22.

Van der Vorst ultimately did not win either election. But let us rewind slightly.

Boris van der Vorst was unable to stand for the IBA Presidency in Istanbul ©Boris van der Vorst
Boris van der Vorst was unable to stand for the IBA Presidency in Istanbul ©Boris van der Vorst

Only when a colleague alerted me of a document did the drama really kick into another gear. Neck-deep into live coverage of the World Championships, we are informed on May 12 that Van der Vorst was unable to stand for the IBA Presidency, nor four other candidates for the Board. Less than a day before an election was supposed to take place.

We have covered what led to this decision on our site exhaustively, but in short, the Boxing Independent Integrity Unit (BIIU) ruled that they these individuals had broken rules about campaigning outside the electoral period and collaboration between candidates. Van der Vorst and the others - who were part of a group called the Common Cause Alliance (CCA), seeking to create dialogue with the incumbent President over governance issues threatening boxing's place at the Olympic Games - deny these charges.

As it stands, this case is in the hands of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), with Van der Vorst challenging his ineligibility.

The election was postponed to the second day of the Congress by Kremlev to allow a CAS request from Van der Vorst for provisional measures to delay the election indefinitely to be considered. This was denied, the election process went ahead, with Kremlev returned by acclamation and set to sit as head of the table until 2026.

Umar Kremlev stood unopposed to become IBA President ©IBA
Umar Kremlev stood unopposed to become IBA President ©IBA

Depending on who you are, this is a positive or negative.

There are many National Federations viewing Kremlev as the saviour of boxing, and that high praise is understandable. His permanent predecessor, Gafur Rakhimov, resigned in 2019 due to allegations of involvement in heroin trafficking, which he denies. Mohamed Moustahsane was President on a prolonged interim basis until December 2020, when the Russian Kremlev was elected.

Ambition has been key for Kremlev, who has prioritised a professional-style approach to the sport, overseeing digitisation and a rebranding, quite frankly with a lavish amount of spending - some coming from his own pocket.

Kremlev has guaranteed prize money at the World Championships, spoken about building academies around the world and invested in development in countries still requiring assistance. To them, he is giving them more attention than they have ever received from the organisation. Mozambique - which had never won a world medal - won two at the Women's Championships in Istanbul and will likely attribute some of that success to the attention the nation has been given over the past 18 months.

Alcinda Panguane won a silver medal for Mozambique at the World Championships, ensuring $50,000 in prize money ©IBA
Alcinda Panguane won a silver medal for Mozambique at the World Championships, ensuring $50,000 in prize money ©IBA

Kremlev's willingness to work with independent bodies has also been notable, with integrity expert Richard McLaren delivering a fourth report on the IBA next month, as well as the Governance Reform Group setting out targets for the IBA to hit.

That includes a roadmap for the IBA to become recognised again by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in May 2023, after it was stripped of that status in 2019 following the Rakhimov era and amid concern of its finances, governance and judging and refereeing.

On the face, it looks nice, but there are cracks that appear when speaking to those not internal. The IOC is not convinced of all of the IBA reforms, particularly criticising its communication regarding updates on these.

Kremlev's opponents have said the great amount of power he has with his wealth and links to questionable sponsors such as Gazprom, majority owned by he Russian state, makes the IBA very dependable on him. Poorer nations receiving that money are also likely to back him in an election - posing the question of whether this unmatched financial backing gives him an unfair advantage.

One of the main concerns - which Kremlev admits is a work in process - is the diversification of sponsorship of income. Gazprom is due to be gone at the end of 2022 and that will bring its own challenges, which the President says he has covered with new money.

Gazprom's sponsorship deal with the IBA is set to end at the end of 2022 ©Getty Images
Gazprom's sponsorship deal with the IBA is set to end at the end of 2022 ©Getty Images

Sustainability goes hand-in-hand with the income concerns. The IBA has heralded its generous prize money - of which $100,000 (£80,000/€95,000) goes to each world champion - but that requires a sponsor the size of Gazprom to bankroll boxing. Is it fair to have this lofty funding for a few years before putting it to bed? Or is this a case where it is better to have it for some time rather than not at all?

Members of the CCA mentioned that that prize money could be better spent around the world, leaving a legacy that a one-off lump sum can only do for one person. It is a fair point. As is the point that Kremlev says this level of investment would not come from someone else and that he is helping.

What will be a concern heading towards 2024 is that relationship with the IOC. An alternative universe might have seen the IBA on better terms with the organisation under Van der Vorst, or those same complications could have still stood.

The uncertainty over boxing's future at the Olympic Games and this ongoing CAS appeal means that although progress is being made, things remain unknown. If Van der Vorst is vindicated by the CAS decision, then it will only put IBA back a step, with just a year until that crucial deadline to save the sport's Olympic status.