Roy Baker is president of Kickboxing Ireland and world governing body WAKO. He is also director of transformation at SSE Airtricity but, as a dedicated instructor, he tells Simon Lewis how Covid-19 has affected his sport at all levels.
How many kickboxers are there in Ireland and what is the sport’s current status coming out of the lockdown?
“We’ve about 12,000 registered members on an active online database, with 157 clubs, each having their own online registry. Because we’re a contact sport we need to have strong protocols around health and safety. We have a live register of active coaches, so we had a good communication protocol through our clubs with members.
“We were allowed back in phase two without any contact, so training in halls with less than 50 people. It’s very difficult because many of the halls are small and once you apply the 2x2 metre (social distancing)... we’ve had to divide classes and keep them 15 minutes apart so there’s no mixing of groups and the area is sanitised between classes. It is difficult, we’re at 38% capacity, so we are operating but just operating and not in any way out of this. As a fighting sport, we’re not allowing sparring or close contact, only distance training.”
How damaging would a return to phase two be for kickboxing?
“Damaging is the right word because that would make us ineffective in trying to deliver a service to our athletes, the same as every other sport. We’ve applied protocols in respect of the need to protect our members but in terms of sporting activity the way we would have to function would dramatically impact on our ability to deliver development.
“Our guys need to get back to sparring, and to what we call partner techniques, where you do one thing and your partner does another. We haven’t done it for months.”
At what moment did you realise this was a game-changing challenge?
“When things started to really happen in Italy. We’ve a large federation there and particularly in northern Italy and we had the Irish Open on March 1-2. We had to write to the Italian federation and tell them not to travel. That was before there was any protocol or decisions made by WHO or governments. We stopped 550 people travelling and took a lot of flak but saw the indicators and said ‘no’ because we had 4,000 athletes at the event.”
How has the crisis affected kickboxing in Ireland?
“All our sporting events were cancelled, all of our squad training sessions and national team development, literally everything has been cancelled right up until November. I’m also the president of the world governing body, elected in February 2019 and our international calendar has stopped also.
“Two weeks ago we cancelled our cadet and junior world championships which were going to be held in Belgrade, Serbia. Those are substantial events, with 2,500 athletes and 2,000 support staff, not far off the size of an Olympics in terms of participants, with 70 or 80 countries sending athletes but we had to say ‘no, we cannot guarantee the safety of our members’.
“If there was an infection we could be the facilitator of a worldwide resurgence.
“Financially it’s been hugely disruptive. A lot of our clubs would be full-time but run on a not-for-profit basis and with coaches who don’t own the business, so there’s no mechanism to recover losses and a lot of those clubs have landlords.
“We’ve had 10 clubs, 7%, close down because they couldn’t reopen. All their income is through subscription, paying for classes so nobody gets paid but we still have to pay our rent and, with no subs coming in, we can’t pay our rent.
“It’s a terrible shame to lose those facilities because some of them are closing down in socially deprived areas. I know the Sports Council are trying to roll out a policy to support clubs but it’s very late.
“Mechanisms should have been in place when sport came back on June 8 and clubs needed to open. We needed a package to help normal little clubs restart.”
Are there overseas models worth applying in Ireland?
“There is a lot of funding being placed into the restart of sports in other countries, it’s just that we’re behind in Ireland.
“We don’t really invest in sport in Ireland the way other countries do. Countries like Germany and Hungary invest far more in the non-Olympic Games sports. In Ireland we invest a lot into the Olympic Games sports but sports like kickboxing, which is part of the Olympic movement since 2018 but not in the Games, we don’t get that type of funding. Ireland has a limited pool and that funding goes towards athletes who have an opportunity to go to Olympic Games. I get that but other countries look at sport in a wider context, both at a National Olympic Committee level and a Sports Council level in relation to participation.
“So at this point of time, we’re behind because how do I promote the services available to members to facilitate or enable them to reopen their club because (funding) is not out there at the moment. Maybe it will come out tomorrow but it’s not out there today. I know they’re doing their best and they’ve got their own challenges in relation to social distancing and remote working but we’re waiting.
“I think post-Covid, there’s a need for society to look at facilities for sport in relation to health and the new normal.”
What’s your message to your members?
“We’ve been through the most difficult period in our history in relation to the way we can operate as a sport and there have been positive things to come out of this in relation to our online interactions, such as refereeing courses, courses for our athletes regarding sports psychology, injury prevention, and so on, a huge amount of courses and every one of them has been oversubscribed. So that’s a good thing but as we get to sport my advice is to make sure we do the right things, put the health and safety of our athletes first at all times and we will get back to doing what we do best.
“We are a small country but in the world of kickboxing we are consistently ranked in the top three or four in the world. There’s no other sport under the Olympic banner on the island of Ireland that has ever been at that number in relation to their world championships.
“We’re shooting really high because of the protocols we have but to continue in that battle we have to make sure we continue to focus on the athlete and the protocols around supporting them, protecting them and also developing them.
“That’s the challenge in a world where the primary sports have a significant amount of internal funding and we are wholly reliant on our athletes’ subscriptions. We’re also self-sufficient, which is something to be proud of.”