Rio Review finds Irish boxing at a dangerous crossroads

Hopes of reclaiming Ireland’s prominence in the boxing ring at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are being undermined by a high performance system roundly criticised by the ‘Rio Review’, according to heavyweight Darren O’Neill.

Rio Review finds Irish boxing at a dangerous crossroads

The 212-page, multi-sport document was made public by Sport Ireland yesterday and, as expected, the most notable sections were those dealing with the failure of a world-class, eight-person boxing squad to claim a single medal from last year’s Games in Brazil.

The likes of Katie Taylor, Michael Conlan, and Paddy Barnes all travelled to Brazil last summer expecting podium places, at the very least, and the Irish public shared that optimism after medal hauls between the ropes in Beijing in 2008 and London four years later.

The boxing review, conducted by Brian MacNiece of Kontinos Partners Limited and put together after 39 one-to-one interviews that included Billy Walsh, did accept that the loss of the Wexford man to the US head coach role was one of a number of factors that had to be taken into account.

The positive drugs test for Michael O’Reilly before the Games and controversial judging decisions added to the problems facing Zaur Antia’s squad but it concluded that these should not “mask the root causes” and that there “are fundamental weaknesses that have been exposed by the Rio outcome.” Quite the turnaround for a programme held up as a shining light for so long.

Nine areas were listed for urgent consideration in order to restore boxing’s place at the summit of Ireland’s Olympic sporting hierarchy and maximise the steady flow of young talent, but O’Neill stressed that time is already against the sport for Tokyo and beyond. “100%,” said the 2012 Olympian. “It needs to be done now. It needs to be done yesterday because we have European Championships in June and we haven’t been sending to the Multi-Nations. Our nationals were held at the wrong time.

“We are starting into a new cycle and we have two majors this year (Europeans and Worlds) and nothing major next year so this year needs to be focused on. Even now we are under pressure. We need to start performing and looking at what is coming through with a succession plan as well.

“Who is going to bring the youths right through to the senior level? It is a huge, drastic change from youths through to senior levels and who is going to bring them through? We have lost two coaches (Walsh and Eddie Bolger) and neither of them have been replaced.

“We need to start acting, and immediately, because we are in a serious risk of losing a lot of talent.”

The Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) addressed a number of the same issues raised by the Rio Review in a Strategic Plan unveiled last December but it remains to be seen if the sport’s tendency towards internal strife can be set aside for the greater good.

Among the key areas in need of attention and listed by the Rio Review is the need to fill the position of High Performance Director which has been vacant since Gary Keegan’s departure in 2008. An announcement on that is expected next week.

Other issues? The need for that director to be given the space and authority to do the job and for the entire unit to leave a cramped National Stadium and move to the state-of-the-art National Sports Campus.

The report pulled no punches with its ‘adapt-or-die’ warning.

“Irish boxing is potentially at a crossroads,” it stated. Address the issues first raised by some of the coaches as far back as 2013 and the next generation can succeed at the highest level, it said. Fail to do so and the decline witnessed at Rio will continue.

The downturn in fortunes, coupled with the loss to the pro ranks of Taylor, Conlan and Barnes, has already had major ramifications with the IABA’s high performance funding for 2017 experiencing a €200,000 dip to €700,000 from its figure a year earlier.

That is due in no small part to the likes of Taylor, Conlan and Barnes going pro and the number of boxers making the international carding scheme dipping from 14 to just six — but the fact that athletics and sailing are now receiving more high-performance public funding is nonetheless jarring.

“We’re in the business of funding national governing bodies that deliver and set targets for themselves,” said Sport Ireland chief executive John Treacy. “They didn’t deliver. It’s quite clear that they didn’t deliver.”

Money also looks likely to be the chief stumbling block to adopting another proposal of the review: the creation of a World Series of Boxing (WSB) franchise in Dublin. Over 57% of boxing’s medallists at Rio qualified via the WSB, in which only a handful of Irish fighters competed for foreign franchises.

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