SEOUL — Chairs, water bottles and fists, ungloved ones, flew in Ring B at the Olympic boxing arena Thursday morning when outraged South Koreans attacked a referee.
The mini-riot broke out seconds after Bulgaria's Alexander Hristov had been awarded a 4-1 decision over South Korea's Byun Jong-il. A South Korean coach and a team manager entered the ring first, the team manager grabbing the referee, Keith Walker of New Zealand, by the arm and shouting in his face.
Seconds later, the ring was full of South Korean boxing officials. Some tried to punch Walker while others tried to restore order. Some spectators leaped from the bleachers onto the arena floor, but for the most part, the disorder was confined to the ring and the ringside area.
Within minutes, armed South Korean security men were stationed at every arena-level entrance, combing everyone with metal detectors. Attendance at the time of the riot was an estimated 3,500.
Walker was rescued from the ring and taken to a room off the arena floor. Jerry Shears of Canada, an official with the International Amateur Boxing Assn. (AIBA) said that Walker had told him he was going home.
"Walker wants to go home, he doesn't want to stay," Shears said. "It's impossible for him to stay in this environment."
The disturbance was wild enough to prompt a United States official to wonder about boxing's future in the Olympics.
"This was awful," said Dr. Robert Voy, a medical officer with the U.S. Olympic Committee. "This could be the death knell for boxing in the Olympics."
Shears said: "The organizing committee will have to answer to (AIBA) as to how this could happen. This is very sad. It was a serious incident."
Walker was punched by several South Koreans, including the team's manager, Kim Sung-eun, according to one witness.
"Mr. Kim punched the referee in the ribs; he told me so," said D.W. Yoon, a boxing press support staff member.
Walker, interviewed at the Seoul airport as he was about to board a plane for New Zealand, told NBC-TV he had reviewed the film of the bout and stood by his decision.
"I really don't believe I did a bad job," Walker said. He said he watched the replay while in police custody for his own protection.
Walker said he was shocked at the reaction of the crowd and the South Korean officials. He said that during the melee he was punched and kicked, liquid was thrown in his face, he had his hair pulled, and one man "nearly pulled my ear off."
Asked if he had been told to leave the country for his own safety, Walker said, " I told me to leave the country."
The bantamweight South Korean boxer, Byun, a 20-year-old university student, was engaged in a physical, mauling bout with Hristov. During the first 2 rounds, Walker had cautioned the South Korean twice for head butts. When Byun committed 3rd and 4th infractions, Walker warned him, each warning carrying a 1-point deduction. Shears said that although he hadn't watched the Byun-Hristov bout, it is highly likely that an Olympic boxer would lose a decision in a close bout after having 2 points deducted for infractions.
"Unless a boxer is winning a bout handily, it's almost a certainty that he can't win a close bout with the loss of 2 points," he said. "It's just too much to make up."
The president of the AIBA, Anwar Chowdry of Pakistan, was not present for the outburst, but Vice President Karl-Heinz Wehr of East Germany was.
When order was semi-restored after about 15 minutes, Wehr left the arena floor with several other AIBA officials to meet with Kim Eung-Youn, venue commissioner and chief of the South Korean boxing federation. Kim, throughout the melee, had remained calmly seated at ringside.
Kim is reputed to be one of the world's wealthiest men. His company, Korea Explosives Group, is an international conglomerate that owns explosive, television and shipping companies.
He reportedly contributes a million dollars a year to support amateur boxing in South Korea. Byun, apparently in protest of the decision,remained in the ring, alone, for 1 hour 7 minutes after the decision. Initially, he sat on the floor directly in front of the NBC cameras.
Later, he moved to a chair that had been brought to his corner. Two bouts were postponed while he sat there, and when the arena lights were turned off after the morning session, NBC put a spotlight on him.
His coaches and the South Korean team manager also refused to leave. Some South Koreans found the disturbance horrifying.
Said Baek Tai-Kill, vice secretary of the South Korean Boxing Federation: "It was bad for Korea, I think so. Very sorry."
In the immediate aftermath, it was reported that the South Koreans had thought the referee was Vidalis Theodoros of Greece, with whom they were unhappy about the Michael Carbajal-Oh Kwang-Soo light-flyweight bout Wednesday.