Boxing in the Olympics: Everything you wanted to know

Boxing shares a long-standing history with the Olympics and is considered one of the most popular sporting disciplines in the world.

By Utathya Nag

Almost as old as human civilization itself, boxing - as a sport - traces its roots to ancient Egypt around 3000 BC.

Almost primal, the sport involves two opponents facing off in a ring trying to win a bout by landing punches on each other using only their fists. But it has evolved into a sophisticated sport involving complicated strategies and craft over the years.

However, even with all its rules and intricacies involved in modern-day boxing, the core of the sport has been left untouched in order to preserve the popularity and excitement of the combat.

Olympic boxing, in particular, has been a big factor in the long-standing mass appeal.

Olympic boxing history

Boxing shares a very close relationship with the Olympic Games. In the ancient Games, Olympic boxing first made an appearance in 688 BC in Greece, with Onomastos of Smyrna emerging as the first-ever Olympic boxing champion.

Historical research also credits Onomastos as the man who first devised the rules for ancient boxing.

With the modern-day Olympics starting in 1896, boxing found its place in the programme at the 1904 St Louis Games, USA. Eighteen local boxers participated in the event, which was competed across seven different weight classes.

Since then boxing has been a permanent fixture at the Summer Games barring only Stockholm 1912 owing to a ban on the sport in Sweden at the time.

Women’s boxing, meanwhile, has been a recent addition starting from the 2012 Olympics in London.

Historically, USA has dominated the Olympics stage with legends like Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay), Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Floyd Mayweather Jr. all leaving their mark. Cuba and countries from the former Soviet Union have also enjoyed great success.

Muhammad Ali’s legend began with his Olympic boxing triumph at Rome 1960.

Olympic boxing rules

The essence of boxing is simple – to try and land punches on the opponent’s head or torso by using the knuckle area of the fist whilst dodging the opponent’s hits. A boxer scores points from every successful hit they land.

Boxers wear protective gloves to avoid injuries and hitting the opponent anywhere below the belt or on the back of the head are prohibited.

An Olympic boxing bout, for both men and women, comprises three rounds of three minutes each. Each round is separated by a one-minute break. Boxers can win a match by any of the following methods.

Victory via Knock Out or KO

When a boxer lands enough legal hits on their opponent to knock them down on the floor of the boxing ring and the opponent is unable to stand up to resume the match within a count of 10 by the official referee, it constitutes a KO victory for the boxer affecting the knockdown.

In case of a KO, the bout ends immediately, and the winner is declared.

Victory via points

An Olympic boxing bout which lasts for the entire three rounds is decided through points.

Five judges seated on the ringside score the boxers based on number of blows landed on the target areas, domination of the bout, technique and tactical superiority and competitiveness. Deductions can also be made based on infringement.

At the end of every round, each of the judges determine a winner for the round based on the judging criteria and award the victor 10 points for the round. The loser of the round can be awarded anywhere between seven to nine points based on the level of performance in that round.

After the bout ends, each judge adds up the round scores to determine a final winner. A boxer can win through unanimous decision if all five judges unanimously agree that the winner has taken two or more rounds.

In situations where the judges have a difference in opinion, the majority consensus is taken into account and the winner is determined through split decision.

Until 2016, the Olympics boxing scoring system was more in tune with amateur boxing and was based purely on hits landed.

However, starting from the Rio Olympics, the 10-point-must system was adopted by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) making the scoring more similar to pro boxing.

The winner of a boxing bout can also be determined through RSC (Referee Stop Contest) -- when the referee or ringside doctors deem one of the boxers unfit to continue a bout), walkovers, disqualifications (DSQ) or when a boxer retires voluntarily or his corner throws in the towel (ABD).

Disqualifications occur when a boxer accumulates three warnings for using means that breach the rules of fair play. Unsportsmanlike conduct, too, can result in direct disqualification.

In women’s Olympic boxing, protective headgears are a must like in amateur boxing. For men, however, headgears were removed in the Olympics from 2016.

Olympic weight categories and boxing tournament format

At the Tokyo Olympics, there are a total of 13 weight categories -- eight for men and five for women -- in boxing.


  • Flyweight (48-52kg)

  • Featherweight (52-57kg)

  • Lightweight (57-63kg)

  • Welterweight (63-69kg)

  • Middleweight (69-75kg)

  • Light Heavyweight (75-81kg)

  • Heavyweight (81-91kg)

  • Super Heavyweight (+91kg)


  • Flyweight (48-51kg)

  • Featherweight (54-57kg)

  • Lightweight (57-60kg)

  • Welterweight (64-69kg)

  • Middleweight (69-75kg)

The Olympic boxing tournament follows a simple knockout format, with draws made at random for each weight class. Winners of each bout progress to the next round.

The winner of the final wins the gold medal while the loser gets the silver medal. Both boxers losing out in the semi-finals win bronze medals. Individual medals are awarded for each weight category.

Olympic boxing qualification for Tokyo

A total of 286 boxers will be competing at the Tokyo 2020. While the number is the same as Rio 2016, the increase in women’s weight class from three to five will witness 100 women boxers take part at the event as compared to the 36 women who competed at Rio.

As decided by the Olympic Boxing Task Force (BTF), who took over the responsibilities of conducting the boxing event at the Tokyo 2020 after the IOC suspended the AIBA, boxing qualifications for the upcoming Summer Olympics are set to be decided through five individual Olympic boxing qualifying tournaments.

Africa, Asia/Oceania, Europe and the Americas have their own continental Olympic qualifiers along with a separate World event in Paris, giving boxers who failed to clinch a spot at their respective continental qualifying events a second chance to make it to the Tokyo Games.

Out of the 286 slots, six (four men and two women) were reserved for host nation Japan. Eight further places (five men and three women) were allocated to the Tripartite Invitation Commission meaning a total of 272 spots (177 for men and 95 for women) are up for grabs at these qualification tournaments.

Before the Tokyo Games was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and affected the overall global sporting calendar, the African and Asia/Oceania legs of the qualifiers in Dakar and Amman were already concluded.

The European leg at London had to be put on hold after day three when COVID-enforced lockdown disrupted the event. The Americas edition and World boxing event in Paris, too, were pushed back to 2021.


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