The last anyone in Seoul saw of Keith Walker, a boxing referee from New Zealand, he was boarding a plane for home. Behind him he left a nation bereft of its pride. "No matter what happens from this moment on, no matter what went before and what follows, we can never recover from this tragedy," said Oh Soo In, the general director of the South Korean boxing federation.
Walker was the ref of a bout between bantamweights Byun Jong Il of South Korea and Alexander Hristov of Bulgaria last Thursday morning. During the fight—a nasty demonstration of grabbing, hooking and shoving by both contestants—-Walker seemed to focus most of his disciplinary attentions on Byun, who was penalized two points for butting. Afterward, when Hristov was announced as the 4-1 winner of the bout, Walker was physically assaulted in the ring by angry Korean boxing officials, including at least two coaches. He was eventually rescued by some very slow-moving police.
The incident resulted from a case of mistaken identity. The Korean officials and fans thought that Walker was Theodoras Vidalis, a Greek who the day before had refereed a highly controversial 3-2 decision awarded to Michael Carbajal of the U.S. over Oh Kwang Soo of South Korea.
"Yesterday," said Lee Heung Soo, the team trainer, immediately after the Byun-Hristov melee, "when the referee was asked why he called so many fouls on Oh, he said, "Shut up. We'll get the Korean again next time.' This is the same referee."
October 2, 1988
It wasn't. No matter. The fires were lit, and when Walker repeatedly cautioned Byun for leading with his head and deducted a point in each of the first two rounds, tempers flared. During the second round Kim Sung Eun, the Korean coach, climbed onto the ring apron to loudly berate Walker. Byun could have been disqualified on the spot for Kim's action; instead. Walker sent Kim back to his position on the floor, and the bout resumed.
When the decision was announced, Lee, the trainer, was the first man to storm into the ring. Others followed. One man whipped off his yellow jacket, which identified him as an Olympic security man, and began swinging wildly at Walker, who did little more than retreat. A plastic water bottle and two chairs flew into the ring.
On the floor, another of the yellow-jackets ripped the scoring sheets from the hands of Emil Zhechev, a Bulgarian and the president of the Referee Committee of the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA), and shredded them. Still not satisfied, the same Korean official picked up a Ping-Pong ball container used for randomly selecting officials for bouts and tried to beat Zhechev over the head with it. Stan Hamilton, an American boxing judge and referee, blocked the blow and suffered a badly cut hand.
As the ring filled with attackers, other referees climbed through the ropes to protect Walker. The bravest of those was Osvaldo Rafael Bisball, a Puerto Rican of slight build who placed himself between Walker—now cowering in a corner—and the angry swarm. "He's my compadre," said Bisball, shrugging off any suggestion of heroics. "I had to help him."
One Korean official in a gray suit leapt into the ring and, gesturing with his arms, seemed to be urging spectators to join the attack. Fortunately the fans were more dismayed by the violence of their countrymen than they were by Byun's defeat. "I feel dirty," one teary-eyed Korean onlooker said through an equally upset translator after police had led the trembling Walker from the ring.
Wallace Matthews, a Newsday writer working as an NBC boxing commentator, tried to flag Walker down as he fled the ring. "Will you go on the air?" asked Matthews.
Walker looked at him as though the reporter had lost his senses. "No," Walker said. "I'm taking the first plane for New Zealand."
But before Walker could leave the arena, another security official let loose a vicious taekwondo kick at his head. The kick missed, probably by intent, and smashed into a pipe, bending it.
Pausing only long enough to gather his luggage, Walker went directly to Kimpo airport, where he booked a $1,368 seat on a 5:45 p.m. Japan Air Lines flight to Auckland. "He didn't have the cash to pay for a ticket," said a JAL ticketing agent. "And his Visa card failed to pass our credit clearance check. One of the people who brought him to the airport paid for his ticket."
A blanket of dismay quickly settled over South Korea. Kim Seung Youn, the country's boxing federation president, and Kim Chong Ha, the president of the Korean Olympic Committee, both offered their resignations. "I take full responsibility for the actions that took place at the gymnasium," said Kim Chong Ha.
There was a report that orders had come down from the central police headquarters to identify and locate the various culprits and arrest them. No arrests have been made so far. Six Koreans, including Lee, the trainer, and Byun, who staged a 67-minute sit-in in the ring after the bout, were suspended by the AIBA, which also threw out a Korean protest of the judges' decision. All Koreans trumpeted the same message: Our country has lost face.
"I deeply regret the disturbance, especially by the country that was the host," said Oh Soo In, the general director. "It's sad. Everyone has worked so hard for seven years to make the Olympics successful, to make everyone proud. And now there is nothing but shame for us."