Fergal Carruth, chief executive of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA), talksthrough the threat facing clubs and the task such a close-contact sport faces in a world coming to terms with social distancing.
Q: What was the moment you realised that this was a challenge on an entirely different scale?
A: Early on we were very conscious about what was happening in Italy and trying to assess the implications of the coronavirus outbreak. Many of our athletes were attending an elite training camp in Assisi, which is a good distance from Lombardy, but too close for comfort. We actually took the team home early from that camp as a precaution.
On a personal level, the 12th of March was the day before my youngest was meant to make her confirmation and also the day the schools were closed down. Soon after our Board of Directors issued a directive to all of our clubs to close.
In the background, the IABA, in conjunction with Belfast City Council, were planning on hosting the European Schoolgirls and Schoolboys tournament there in June. That rumbled on for some time as we tried to work out if there was any possibility it might go ahead. Like many other things, unfortunately, the possibility reduced to nil.
The biggest realisation of the challenge ahead was when the qualifiers for the Olympic Games in London were closed down mid-session. It quickly became apparent as governments across Europe announced plans to lock down that the Games themselves were now in jeopardy.”
Q: Two Turkish boxers and one of their coaches subsequently tested positive for Covid-19 after that London event and there was a lot of criticism about it being allowed to proceed. Did it feel like a lose-lose situation for the likes of the IABA?
A: Yeah. In hindsight, you would certainly look back and say that they shouldn't have gone ahead in the first place. But they were on and if our boxers weren't there they wouldn't have had the possibility of qualifying at the European event and it would have been all down to the world qualification event after that.
The boxers certainly wanted to be there. There were a lot of unknowns at the time. So getting them over there and coming away with one person qualified in Brendan Irvine was excellent and nine of our boxers are still in with an opportunity of qualifying from that championship because it will pick up exactly where it left off in January or February of next year.
But looking back on things you would have to say the competition most likely should not have happened in the first place.
Q: What are the implications for our elite boxers of the Tokyo Games being put back 12 months?
A: In some ways, they are in an unique position because there is that qualification competition already started, the Europeans. That structure will remain in place and we have been assured of that by the IOC. So Brendan Irvine has qualified and will remain qualified.
All of the other boxers who came home mid-session, including Kellie Harrington, Aidan Walsh, their next fights will be against whoever they were due to face before in London in the qualification sense.
So they have that goal in sight. They are looking towards early next year and then, after that, there will be another chance for people to qualify in May or June. That will bring about its own drama as to who will qualify from the national structure to go to that final qualifying event and then how they will actually do out there. We are a sport that is focused on the Olympics and on our team.
Hopefully the Games will now take part in 2021 and we will have a large male and female representation and we will also be able to host the European Schoolboy and Schoolgirl Championships next summer.
Q: Has anything in your past professional experience been a help in dealing with this?
A: On a few different levels, past experience and resilience learned has been a help, but nothing has been equal to this. I was a director of a company directly linked to the construction industry when the last recession hit where many in that sector were adversely affected, some losing their companies, others losing their jobs, which is never easy.
Boxing clubs in this country, through good and bad, have typically struggled. Many are from socio-economically disadvantaged areas so they are somewhat battle-hardened and used to making the most from a little.
Q: So how has the crisis affected the IABA and the wider sport in a business and financial sense?
A: To stay with the boxing clubs, throughout any hardships they have suffered in the past, they have always maintained an ability to help their members and the surrounding community. I really hope they can continue to do so into the future because that's as much a part of what we are as an organisation as any success we have achieved.
Financially speaking, the losses we have incurred and the anticipated losses for the organisation will be very severe, both at a national organisation and at a club level. We have a very real concern for many of our clubs throughout the 32 counties, that they will find this period extremely challenging, and some will not make it through.
Our insurance excludes epidemics and the outbreak will certainly have a severe financial impact, resulting in financial losses through event cancellations in the National Stadium which is also used for bingo, as an exam venue and for music concerts. The impact on our commercial revenue streams and subscriptions will be in the region of €1m for 2020 with reduced footfall and declining revenue streams likely to continue into 2021.
We are very grateful for our main sponsors who remain on board: Liffey Crane Hire, Principal Construction and of course O'Neills who have been with us for a long, long time and who are doing super work in the fight against coronavirus themselves.
Q: Boxing was originally due to return in the last of the five phases, on August 10, in the original roadmap. Where is it at now given things have progressed quicker than expected?
A: We're scheduled to be in the last phase and that is in almost every country you look at. The last phase in Ireland was scheduled for the 10th of August and boxing is in with the likes of wrestling and rugby so our Board of Directors currently have a draft return-to-sport criteria set out for our clubs. We are trying to make it as user-friendly as possible for the clubs to be able to implement while adhering to the health service guidelines that are in place.
As it stands, the board has given a directive that our clubs won't reopen until the 10th of August. I can't gainsay that at this time but the dates for everything are fluctuating given the acceleration in loosening restrictions by the government.
Q: How complicated is a return for boxing in an era of social distancing given the close contact involved in and out of the ring?
A: If you consider the guidelines that have been set out in terms of social distancing, that is the biggest barrier of all. So, whether it is the one-metre or the two-metre rule is really inconsequential to boxing because you can't operate at either in an effective way in terms of competition.
You'll also consider that many of our clubs are quite small and the membership would, in general, be tightly packed in together. So, again, that is a big issue. Anyone who has even done boxercise training, never mind competitive boxing, will understand how much of a sweat you actually build up when training. Those droplets do fly off whether you are punching a bag or skipping. There are a lot of body parts moving and sweat gets around. It does create its own complications.
We also have boxers wearing gloves that are always shared within competition so that we can maintain the integrity of the glove. You have cornermen who have to take out gum shields for the boxers. The referee is very close to the boxers so he can notice any injury or cut. That causes issues. Then our officials, including doctors, are very close to the ring where droplets are likely to fall. It makes it very complicated where social distancing is required.
Q: How is the return to the ring looking in other countries and are there any pointers you can use from other jurisdictions?
A: Boxing is a small sporting organisation in Irish terms, despite being our most successful at the Olympics, so we are keeping a close eye on how some of the larger contact sports such as the IRFU, the GAA are dealing with the situation.
I'm in close contact with my counterparts in the UK and I'm also on the board of the Federation of Irish Sport and, as such, I have close contact with the other CEOs. The approach being taken across the board is very similar at this point, which is very important.”