Boxing was always going to be the sport that made the headlines for the Irish in Rio but nobody expected them before the first blow was struck.
In Ireland, at least. Middleweight Michael O’Reilly’s positive drug test was a shattering blow to a team which only hours before it became public was expressing itself on top of the world.
Shell-shocked, the team hid yesterday behind the cocoon created for all competitors by the hundreds of heavily-armed guards around their highly-protected Athletes’ Village.
Yet the moment has passed in Rio as little more than a ripple overwhelmed by the massive waves of doping news rolling into the city from the Russian team.
A few lines in the local newspaper mentioned an international wire service report an Irish male boxer had failed a test but passed without comment.
Russians were talking. The Irish were not. An ironic twist. But then the Russians were celebrating a triumph.
Two thirds of their original team, a total of 271 competitors, had been cleared to compete, including all 11 of their boxers, and all just two weeks since the World Anti-Doping Agency recommended the entire Russian team be banned.
The Irish team were saying no more than the Rio media about their little local difficulty. No comment all round.
“The matter is under review, so I cannot comment,” said the team press officer Nick Dawes, even refusing to admit whether O’Reilly was staying, going or gone from the Athletes’ Village.
A similar situation occurred for the British team before the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. A sprinter and two weightlifters were in the Athletes Village when news came that tests they had given before leaving London were positive.
They were deprived of their Olympic credentials immediately and put on the first plane home.
Times were different. That was before the days when there was appeal procedures but, more importantly, the three Britons had had their B samples confirm the original analysis.
O’Reilly remains suspended pending the results of the testing of his B sample and is not guilty in any sense until that is done or he declines to bother with its testing. The experts hold out little hope for him.
B samples rarely produce a contrary result to the first analysis. Sports law expert Jack Anderson, one of the international panel of arbitrators called upon regularly by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, spent the last week working for CAS on its recommendations on which Russians can be cleared to compete in Rio.
The problem for O’Reilly, he says, is the burden of proof once the B sample confirms the result of the first analysis is it falls on the athlete to prove their innocence.
“That always takes a while to gather any evidence,” he said by phone yesterday.
O’Reilly does not have the benefit of time. His seeding in the draw gave him a bye through round one but that still means he is scheduled to fight next Friday.
“There is a vague possibility he could go to the CAS panel set up in Rio but that’s unlikely to be open to him because the test was prior to the Games,” said Anderson.
“We don’t have definite information on the substance and that is important. If it is a recreational drug there are grades of severity. If it was what you could call a soft drug like cannabis taken outside of competition, there may be no sanction. But a hard recreational drug like cocaine whenever it is used would be severe.
“The key principle here is it should be kept private and due process of law respected. It is completely in order for the Irish Olympic Association and the governing body to say nothing. That’s what they should be doing.”
O’Reilly is not a newcomer to dealings with boxing authorities over indiscipline.
He was sent home with team-mate Dean Walsh from the European Olympic qualifying tournament in Turkey for what the Irish ABA called “bringing Irish boxing into disrepute.” It cost him a €5,000 fine.
Ironically, the 11 Russian boxers have all been cleared by the international federation IABA after the confirmation of their eligibility by CAS.
The first Russian in the ring will be lightweight Adlan Abdurashidov tomorrow morning. He is in David Oliver Joyce’s half of the draw but cannot meet him before the semi-finals.
A more formidable force in the ring of the 76 nations with boxers is likely to be the Cubans. They won seven medals in ten divisions at last year’s World Championships, including four golds; all seven medallists are entered in Rio.
The most intriguing of them is Julio Cesar Cruz in the same light-heavyweight division as Joe Ward. He has won gold in the division at the last three World Championships but he finished only fifth in the Games in London four years ago.
Joyce will be first into the ring for Ireland tomorrow evening. By then other questions may have been resolved.
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