The cream of Ireland’s beaten Olympic boxers will be lost to the amateur game after the debacle of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. And they will leave behind a system that will also defeat those who seek to succeed them.
Belfast pair Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes will turn professional as soon as they can put pen to paper. Welter Steven Donnelly has had an approach from the US to do the same.
Conlan has calmed since he said he would never fight in another AIBA tournament but friends say that has not changed his mind. Barnes still boils with private fury at the shambles of this Olympics.
The irony of the Irish claims against officials is that when the AIBA acted after Conlan’s outburst to review previous results, one of those it declined to use again in any capacity was an Irishman, Michael Gallagher. Gallagher was judged to have badly handled another controversial decision when refereeing a bantamweight bout between Argentinian Alberto Melian and Uzbeki Murodjon Akhmadaliev.
Melian was hit hard in round one. He continued but then indicated that his gumshield had come out. Gallagher seemed to have misunderstood his sign-language for a refusal to fight and declared the fight a technical knock-out after just 2 minutes 32 seconds of the first round.
Gallagher had been a party to another surprising decision when Russian Evgeny Tishchenko was given a split decision over Kazak Vassilly Levitt. Most observers thought Levitt should have won unanimously but Gallaher ruled against in both second and third rounds.
Others thought to have been sent home included two involved in Conlan’s defeat — the Algerian referee Kheira Sidi Yakoub and a Polish judge Maruisz Gorny — neither of whom officiated in any capacity after that Tuesday.
Whether you believe the tournament’s judging was incompetent — or, as Conlan said, corrupt, and AIBA was ridiculed for declaring in a statement that it had “zero tolerance to fair play”— the overall performance of the Irish team was an accident waiting to happen.
Allowing Michael O’Reilly to come to Rio — his coach after all is Pat Ryan, who as president of the Irish ABA should have known — badly damaged the team. Privately many among them were infuriated. He did not have a friend among the other boxers when they discovered he had tested positive.
O’Reilly was allowed to travel to Rio in spite of an existing reputation as an undisciplined athlete. He had been sent home from a European qualifying event for “bringing Irish boxing into disrepute” and fined €5,000. Yet not only was the fine returned to him but he was allowed back into the team.
The Irish team management then failed to take control of the situation when O’Reilly was revealed as a drug offender by the Irish Examiner. While Greek and Cypriot athletes found to have tested positive before reaching Rio were dispatched from the athletes’ village the same night, O’Reilly remained there for days.
Where was the Irish boxing team manager when this was at melting point? Joe Hennigan, president of Connacht ABA and an amateur stalwart for 30 years, was not seen or heard. One experienced Irish journalist who has reported six Olympic boxing tournaments said that in none of those has he ever met an Irish boxing team manager.
Then came the first dramatic defeat, the medal prospects of Barnes ending in his first bout when it was obvious he had been forced to fast to make the 49kg weight limit and had no energy left.
From Barnes came the admission that he had not made the weight in the previous 16 months or in any WSB bout he fought. So what was he doing in the division, and why was not an early decision made to qualify him at 52kg and move the lighter flyweight Brendan Irvine to light-fly?
The real damage to Ireland’s prospects was done in the year before Rio, when IABA officials prevaricated over a contract as head of performance for its successful head coach Billy Walsh. Walsh was the glue to the Irish high performance group.
The IABA and its amateur officials were unwilling to relinquish any control to him. They wanted him on a short-term contract without the proper title, and it ended in grief when he accepted an offer to become performance head to the US women’s team.
The US, the most successful boxing nation in Olympic history, had not won a medal in 2012. Here it is guaranteed at least three, and Walsh’s role is likely to be extended to include the men’s team for the next four years. Walsh made clear in public comments when he took up his new job that the structure he had largely created was beginning to show faultlines. The five medals won in London in 2012 led to complacency at the highest level. Rio was an accident waiting to happen.
The problem, according to close observers, is an amateur structure stuck in a former age, the same problem that existed in Britain until ten years ago. There, the UK Sports Council, which funded the administration of amateur boxing, decided unilaterally to strip the old committee system of its influence.
The Amateur Boxing Association, essentially an English administration, was forced to stand aside for a Great Britain Association with all powers given to a high performance group headquartered in Sheffield paid for entirely by UK Sport. A head of performance has full control of training, selection, and those he employs.
Britain won just one medal — Amir Khan’s — in 2004. They won three in Beijing, five in London, and are guaranteed another three here.
The Irish Sports Council cannot be unaware of the precedent. If they want anything positive apart from a drug test to come out of the Rio debacle, they should act even before Conlan, Barnes, and Donnelly have put pen to professional papers.
The word amateur was dropped from the Olympic lexicon more than 20 years ago. It is time it was in Ireland.
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