Irish boxing was the envy of the world not so long ago; now however it’s in complete freefall thanks to the ego, actions and ability of those that continue to run it, writes Ewan MacKenna
With a fortnight to go before they headed for Brazil, an old friend of theirs decided he’d pay the boxing team a visit and wish them well. Entering the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel, where they’d been staying for a week already as is the norm given the state of the bedrooms in the High Performance Unit, he like so many others thought this was about to be one of the most successful stories in the history of Irish sport. Leaving, he’d the jump on what is a new and what will be a long-term reality.
1. He knocks on the door of Michael Conlan, a gold medalist in waiting, excited to talk the future.
2. He isn’t surprised to hear Paddy Barnes before he sees him, off in a corner behind the door.
3. He thinks it’s good they are sharing, given their relationship and the pressure on both to deliver.
4. He smiles at the gloves and gear strewn about as it takes him back to his own long-gone career.
Wait… Stop… Rewind…
It hits him that they aren’t alone. There are actually four fighters staying in here, two to each double bed.
Boxing is a rough and ready game. The best pugilists rarely come from the nicest gyms or the most comfortable backgrounds, but at an elite level you still need quality in your preparation. But this is a microcosm of what went wrong not just in Rio but what has gone wrong in Irish amateur boxing. You can blame weight, you can blame judges, you can blame personal circumstances for what happened at the Games and they are all factors. But you can only blame them after understanding the factor in what is a collapse much more than a demise. The IABA itself.
In recent days, the obvious decisions of our top proponents have exposed an even fatter and softer underbelly to our boxing than the biggest pessimists or greatest investigators could have imagined. Barnes and Conlan have gone pro; Steven Donnelly soon will, joining Jason Quigley and John Joe Nevin who have long since left; Katie Taylor is playing soccer and won’t see another Olympics; Davy Oliver Joyce will retire before 2020; Michael O’Reilly might as well have; Joe Ward is undecided.
Sure, not many programmes could deal with that but that’s too easy. It’s why so many jumped ship and why there are limited replacements that is the issue. Remember, not so long ago we were the new Cuba. But tell a kid in a few years about how we were once a major power threatening more in the ring and they’ll look at you with the same face as a mention of Castro and communism.
And yet, away from the athletes, it had seemingly bottomed out on the basis it couldn’t get any worse. That’s because president Tommy Murphy, CEO Don Steward and chair of the board John Lynch had meandered away after a stint where fighters achieved in spite of them. Take an episode involving Murphy as a brush stroke on a large canvas. In 2013 at a press conference to launch the nationals in CityWest – they never took place there – he nodded at an idea from the media that they’d be great timing for Taylor as she needed warm-ups before the Europeans. Only later when she had left did he agree the Europeans had been cancelled as it emerged the IABA had actually forgotten, just months out, to tell their brightest star they were off.
Of course there were endless other dabs of paint in that picture. Despite their job being administration and organisation and despite being thrown huge bundles of taxpayer cash, there were instances where former head coach Billy Walsh had to buy bin liners and products for cleaners. And then there was the homecoming – or lack of – after London 2012. Having realised they should have done something, they threw it together so late that a tiny crowd pockmarked the National Stadium and the medalists on stage shouted answers at a lack of media due to there being no mic. Little wonder there was no need for a homecoming this time around.
Yet somehow, that holy trinity out of the picture, the IABA have continued on in the same old way with Pat Ryan as president, Fergal Carruth as CEO and Joe Christle as chair. The records will show they are the ones that finally got rid of Walsh, with Ryan going into hiding at that time, before calling a press conference to address the issue only that never happened either. He’s also the coach of O’Reilly and couldn’t be contacted when his fighter failed a drug test, news that was leaked to the media before they’d even told their team at the Olympics with new head coach Zaur Antia in a panic leaving the draw there. Meanwhile Carruth has said since Walsh wasn’t even missed at the Games after other IABA figures had noted that there were “20 coaches as good as Billy Walsh in Ireland”.
Perhaps the culture of their organisation is so dysfunctional that they cannot thrive in it or perhaps they are incompetent. You choose. But either way, they can’t produce so should step aside as while there’s no shame in resigning, they’ve no shame in not resigning given what has gone on.
Yet that would only be a start as Irish boxing has returned to year zero and you can expect the results of 2000 and 2004 to re-emerge, a time when a single boxer would show up at a Games and then go home none the wiser. Indeed as we search through the rubble, all that’s left is Antia from the halcyon days, in Georgia during the week after his son bought a house in their homeland, but desperate to return and instill a bygone discipline. That he cannot do that on his own.
Sources say he’d like to surround himself with coaches like Kenneth Egan and Andy Lee, but that is not his choice despite the supposed autonomy of the High Performance Unit. Instead the IABA will choose for him, as he tries to thrive in a toxic environment where his relationship with Eddie Bolger has become strained and John Conlan is likely to return to Belfast. All in all, he’s left to trust in and answer to the same people that one insider says have been paying one coach a large salary when a bad back has meant he hasn’t been able to coach in an age.
This is wastefulness not of their own money either. In 2016 the IABA were given €900,000 by the Sports Council to fund a HPU they’ve been dismantling brick by brick for years, from Gary Keegan through to Walsh. They, as a core payment, were also given €432,000 and these are figures that have remained steady since around 2011 when other sports were either slashed or slipped. Then there’s the €2 million in capital grants per annum, although much of this does filter down to communities in huge need, where vital work is done. But never did they leverage those handouts to get private money. Worse than that, one source says that they weren’t shy about throwing medals on desks in the Sports Council or Department of Sport demanding more, so what now?
Over all the good years they ate fish but didn’t bother to fish. A generation from Egan and Darren Sutherland right through to now were beyond special. They were good looking, articulate, supremely talented and always delivered. But Barnes earlier in the year ranted about a lack of sponsorship as, after everything, the IABA survive on hand outs with next to zero in commercial revenue. In fact another source recalls a summer send-off boxing international with the likes of former medalists Egan, Michael Carruth and Hugh Russell present to see what were expected to be the newest medalists. About 200 people showed up and the IABA excuse was they couldn’t promote it as it wasn’t a full international. “Most of those there didn’t even pay in,” the person adds.
But while Irish Sport Council budgets won’t be done for some time, expect cuts to boxing and inexplicably that’s what those over it deserve. However that’s also to the detriment of those hoping to swim in a stagnant pond as the HPU need a director who demands respect, the head coach in Antia to remain, and a smattering of coaches that suit his style and programme. Nothing suggests that will happen though as the IABA continue to put themselves above the best interests of our elite boxing and boxers.
The end result is that suddenly we are elite no more.
Sunday Business Post
25 September, 2016