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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

A Crushing Decision : In Vargas' Mind, Loss Does Not Compute

Boxing: Electronic scoring gives Romania's Simion 8-7 decision, even though three of five judges scored bout in Oxnard welterweight's favor.

July 26, 1996|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — For the few frozen moments between the fighting and the judgment, Fernando Vargas did not hold his breath, or pray, or even cross his fingers.

Was he too young to be afraid?

After three rounds, the 18-year-old Oxnard-based welterweight ambled to the center of the ring Thursday afternoon, raised his right arm--with a brave finger pointed to the ceiling--in anticipation and relief, then waited for the official celebration to begin and for his gold-medal journey to move ahead one more step.

Every dream and every scenario Vargas had ever allowed himself ended with him on a podium, the national anthem playing, the U.S. flag in the rafters, and a gold medal hanging from his neck.

Thursday, it ended in dispute and despair, a golden vision turned into charges of conspiracy, corruption and the cheapest sort of vindictiveness.

In the stands, he saw his 7-year-old sister, Maria, crying. Nearby, his teammates were silent.

"I wanted to cry," Vargas said minutes later. "Because all the hard work I've done to get to this turned to nothing."

No gold medal. No flag. No national anthem. No podium.

And, according to Vargas and his coaches in the bitter aftermath, no justice.

"You see it happen to other people, but you don't ever think it's going to happen to you, not in your home country," Vargas said. "I didn't think they could do that to us here. But I guess they can get you anywhere.

"America is the greatest country in the world, and people in the rest of the world are jealous of us. The only way they can get us back is cheating us. The only way."

By one precious point, in a disputed decision that highlighted the vagaries of the boxing competition's computer scoring system, Vargas lost to long-armed Romanian Marian Simion, 8-7, before a stunned, sellout crowd at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

Though the five judges combined credited Vargas with more scoring blows than Simion, the computer system only awards points if at least three judges push the fighter's button within one second.

Said U.S. assistant coach Jesse Ravelo: "It's unbelievable. They just took a dream away from a kid."

The elimination of Vargas, considered a top medal contender, followed quickly after bantamweight Zahir Raheem was stopped in the first round by Cuban Arnaldo Mesa, dealing the U.S. team a wounding double-shot of defeat. After Raheem's bout was stopped, he pushed away referee Nikolae Constantinescu of Romania, then crumbled in tears in the corner with U.S. Coach Al Mitchell.

"He's 19 years old," Mitchell said of Raheem, who did not shake Mesa's hand or speak with reporters afterward. "He thinks his world is over."

Heavyweight Nate Jones prevented a sweep Thursday by stopping England's Fola Okesola in the third round. It was small consolation, though, for this reeling American team, which is 0-2 in head-to-head matches with the Cubans and has nine fighters still alive.

Ravelo and Mitchell heatedly said they would seek to file a grievance on the Vargas decision, pointing to Puerto Rican judge Ramon Navero, who did not credit Vargas for a single scoring blow in the second round.

"The whole scenario is beginning to work against us again," Ravelo said, referring to past tournaments in which high-profile Americans were bounced out in strange decisions. "We started out really good, and it's starting again.

"The second round was one of Vargas' best rounds. He threw power punches, he put punches together. No points? Somebody has to take a look at this Puerto Rican judge, because it's happening again."

Vargas, using a hard jab and tight left hook effectively, led after the first round, 4-2, though Simion was firing hard right hands at him.

The second round is what lost it for Vargas, whether it was bad scoring, sluggish fighting or a combination of the two. Looking less aggressive but appearing to land at least a couple of scoring blows, Vargas was shut out by an aggressive Simion, 5-0, and headed into the third round trailing, 7-4.

Vargas turned up the pressure in the final round, landing enough left hooks to tie it, 7-7, with 50 seconds left. But, in an exchange where both fighters seemed to land blows that were not credited, finally, Simion landed a wide right to Vargas' chin at 2:36 that decided the fight.

A final flurry by Vargas in the closing moments was to no avail.

Both Ravelo and Mitchell suggested that the Cubans, who ran their record to 13-0 in the tournament with three more victories, get preferential treatment from the judges--and the Americans get cheated.

"This is why the kids turn pro, decisions like this," Mitchell said. "And until somebody has the guts to find a new system, it's going to keep happening. Boxing fans are getting tired of it. I'm fed up, and the guys who get hurt most are the boxers. The system's got to be overhauled."

But Jerry Dusenberry, the USA Boxing president who has been vocal about warning international judges not to slight U.S. fighters, said he would discourage any push for a protest.

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