SEOUL, South Korea — He sat on a bench inside a dimly lit waiting room, a hood pulled over his head, the tears streaming down his cheeks. It was all coming apart, his entire Olympic dream, and there was nothing he could do about it but sit and wait, the cruelest punishment you can dish out to a boxer. Anthony Hembrick is a Detroit kid with a Detroit story — up from the streets, joined the Army, became a champion, made the Olympic team — and he had overcome a lot of things in his life, but he could not overcome stupidity, not this time, because it was not his stupidity, it was his coach’s. And now, as Hembrick sat there paralyzed, crying, the coach, Ken Adams, was trying desperately to get somebody to believe him.
He had read the schedule wrong, he said. He thought the bout was later, much later, maybe the 11th bout of the morning, sometime around 12:45 p.m. He and Hembrick had tried to take the 10 o’clock bus from the athletes’ village, which would have reached the Chamsil boxing arena about 10:20. The bus was full. It was raining. They waited for the next one. By the time they arrived, the U.S. boxing people were at the door, screaming and waving, while Ha Jong Ho from South Korea, whose coach apparently had no problem reading the schedule, was sitting on a stool inside the ring, counting down the seconds to the easiest victory he would ever have.
They tried to dress Hembrick. Too late. Tried to tape him up. Too late. Tried to argue, appeal, stop the clock, they were frantic, yelling, please! Too late. The bout was declared a walkover about 10:50, a victory by absence, and Ha raised his hands and grinned, which must have been the most physical exertion he had all day.
A small mistake. A huge injustice. And suddenly, Anthony Hembrick, pending appeal, was history.
The wrong kind.
“Inexcusable!” screamed Ferdie Pacheco, the NBC fight analyst, in a crowd of people who were all screaming similar things. “The coach has a list. Check it, for bleep’s sake! The guy’s a military man. He can read schedules, can’t he? Thirty years in the Army! How can you not check the thing over and over?”
Exactly. How can anything this stupid happen in something this big? Why didn’t they have a team bus? Why didn’t they have a meeting? There are four boxing coaches in the village and none of them could read the schedule? Come on. I am looking at the schedule as I write this, and I can tell you it is a bit confusing, but anyone with a reasonable amount of intelligence can figure it out — there are two boxing rings, “A” and “B,” and apparently Adams couldn’t tell which bouts were for which ring — but, hey, for Pete’s sake, if you have any doubts, check it! Ask questions! Athletes don’t give up half their lives so coaches can take the small details lightly. NBC knew what time the fight was. The sports writers knew what time the fight was. The coaches didn’t know?
Buses? Rain? Traffic? Come off it. The fact is, the U.S. boxing team has been one bad joke after another this year, coaches fighting and going to court — and all that would be dumb and ridiculous but basically harmless until now, because now they have drawn blood. Now they have dragged a young man down with them, a 22-year-old Army paratrooper who had everything to gain from these Olympics, a kid who had been fighting since his older brother encouraged him to get into it back on the East Side of Detroit. And no matter what happens with the appeal — which was to be decided early today Detroit time — he doesn’t deserve to have his Olympics stained like this. No way. A few days ago, I sat with Hembrick, talking about these Games, talking about his younger brother, Damon, who had been murdered two years ago in a McDonald’s where he was working. The killers robbed him, stabbed him, and threw his body into the street. Police never found the killers. “I try not to think about it,” Hembrick had said, “because I know what I am capable of doing and I don’t want to be that way, I want to lead a good life.”
He spoke softly, without agitation. But he said he could never trust anyone anymore, because he was never sure if he was talking to someone who knew what happened to Damon.
“His death changed me. I used to walk down the street and say, ‘What’s up?’ to people, even if I didn’t know them. Now if someone says something to me I don’t pay attention. I just walk by. I don’t want to be hateful. I’m trying not to. . . . But you’ve got to be cruel and hard these days, because something precious can be taken away from you at any time.”
He had been talking about life and death. He never thought he would be talking about his Olympics.
Where’s the justice in all this? For once we had a Detroit kid with a sad story who was trying to make it better. This was his shot. A gold medal? A pro career? He was not a favorite but he stood a chance, he had abundant skill and flamboyant style and he liked to box with small American flags tucked in his shoes. His face is round and boyish and explodes in a huge smile whenever he is declared a winner.
He was not smiling Sunday night. He was crying. And the chairman of some Olympic grievance commission was trying to decide if the stupidity of one man shall be forgiven for the future of another.
A small mistake. A huge injustice.
“Why didn’t they take a cab?” someone demanded of Jim Fox, the executive director of the USA Amateur Boxing Federation, as he stood before a room full of screaming reporters.
He paused before answering. He had a huge mess on his hands; his coach had made an unforgivable error, a young man’s life was being changed, maybe ruined, the tint of these Olympics had grown suddenly dark — and all because his people couldn’t read and couldn’t hire a car and couldn’t do the simplest thing right. What was he going to say?
“They didn’t think they were late,” said Fox, glumly, and it was as empty an answer as it sounds.
‘A TRAGIC THING’
Reaction to Anthony Hembrick’s disqualification, pending appeal:
* ROBERT HELMICK, U.S. Olympic Committee president: “It is a terrible thing, it is a tragic thing to have at the Olympics. . . . I can assure the public that we are going to look into this, we’ll find out and report all the facts.”
* FRANK AIRES, USOC logistics co-ordinator, said the committee immediately sent out urgent reminders to all team managers to double-check their competition and transportation schedules. Aires said he was unaware of any major transportation problems.
* TAYLOR GORDON, Canadian boxing coach: “We got to (a) bus about 7 minutes to 9 and they weren’t letting another person on. It was jammed. We forced our way in the door. But when we got in, there was another dozen or 20 people who did not get in.”
* THE HISTORY: Three U.S. sprinters at the 1972 Games in Munich — Eddie Hart, Rey Robinson and Robert Taylor — discovered while watching TV that they had misunderstood the time of their quarterfinal heat in the 100 meters. They rushed to the stadium, but only Taylor arrived in time. Hart and Robinson were disqualified. CUTLINES: Anthony Hembrick leaves the boxing area after he was eliminated from the Olympics. Jim Fox (center, wearing glasses) executive directorof the USA Amateur Boxing Federation, confers withofficials after Anthony Hembrick’s disqualificationSunday night.