Sean McGoldrick: Disastrous Olympics puts IABA under the spotlight

Katie Taylor after her shock defeat in Rio
Katie Taylor after her shock defeat in Rio

PAT Hickey should be on the Christmas card list of every member of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association’s Board of Directors for the foreseeable future, regardless of his ultimate fate in Brazil.

His sensational arrest has single-handedly managed to relegate one of the worst ever performances by an Irish boxing team at the Olympics way down the news list. 

Granted, Ireland had only one boxer at both the Sydney and Athens Games. But not since the 1960 Games in Rome, when Ireland’s ten-man team only managed to win six bouts, has an Irish boxing squad had such a miserable time at the Games.

No amount of hand-wringing – about how a questionable judging decision in Katie Taylor’s and a downright awful one in Michael Conlan’s quarter-finals cost Ireland two medals – can disguise the fact that overall the boxers failed to produce the goods in Pavilion 6 of the Riocentro.

At times the whole project resembled a car crash as they lurched from crisis to crisis, particularly in the seven days between when news of Michael O’Reilly’s failed dope test was leaked and the back-to-back defeats within 24 hours of Paddy Barnes and Joe Ward. 

Thus after just four days of boxing, three of the team’s leading medal prospects, O’Reilly, Barnes and Ward had exited stage left. The performances of David Oliver Joyce and, in particular, Steven Donnelly lifted the spirits temporarily. 

But then the whole project plunged into the abyss after Brendan Irvine was outclassed on his Olympic debut, and the squad’s two best gold medal prospects Taylor and Conlan left the arena after shock losses. 

Taylor, supported by her mother Bridget, was inconsolable, while Conlan and his father John bristled with indignation and anger.

There are no second chances in Olympic boxing and there is no escaping the reality that the boxers’ performances made grim reading for the IABA and the High Performance Unit. Not only did Ireland fail to win an Olympic medal in boxing for the first time since the 2004 Olympics, the eight-member team only managed to win FOUR bouts in Rio.

O’Reilly was sent home while Barnes, Ward, Irvine and perhaps most shocking of all Taylor failed to register a single win between them.

So where did it all go wrong? 

Everybody associated with boxing – including those of us who report on their performances – were probably guilty of assuming that the successes achieved in Beijing, where they won three medals, and London, where the boxers garnered four, would simply continue indefinitely.

Even the HPU’s own coaches acknowledged that they had over-achieved in 2008 and 2012. We ignored just how difficult it is to secure an Olympic medal. There are only 52 medals up for grabs in the tournament and every one of them is precious.

The HPU has been here before. At the 2007 World Championships in Chicago all the newly full-time boxers bombed out early. 

Only a cheeky 20-year-old called Paddy Barnes – who had been added to the team by the hierarchy of the IABA – saved them from even more embarrassment when he secured a spot at the Beijing Olympics.

But they learned from the experience, regrouped and went on to justifiably earn the moniker the Medal Factory. For a variety of reasons it will be more difficult to regroup after his debacle.

There is no single reason why the Irish boxers failed to achieve their target of securing three Olympic medals. Lest we forget; other squads underperformed as well. 

Great Britain had 12 boxers competing but only three survived until the medal stage just four years after they headed the medals’ table in boxing with three gold, one silver and one bronze.

The shock departure of Billy Walsh does not fully explain the scale of the disaster for Ireland, though it was a significant contributory factor. 

Without labouring the point, Ireland missed his brilliant motivation skills which he deployed so effectively, particularly outside the ring. 

Without him around, disciplinary standards were allowed to slip. The IABA officially disputed John Conlan’s claim that Michael O’Reilly had effectively gone AWOL before the squad’s departure to Rio. 

But it’s obvious that O’Reilly – who is coached by IABA President Pat Ryan – was allowed far too much leeway, particularly in the period between qualifying in late June and the squad’s departure to Rio in the third week of July. 

The failure of the IABA to appoint a new Head of Performance to replace Billy Walsh – he essentially doubled up as the head of the HPU and Head Coach before departing to the US – doubled the work load on the acting head coach Zaur Antia.

This issue was compounded by two other factors – Ireland qualified seven male boxers, increasing Antia’s workload further, as did the fact that Pete Taylor no longer coached his daughter Katie, which meant he had to take primary responsibility for her as well.

With the exception of Joyce,  Conlan and Donnelly, the rest of the boxers looked leaden-footed in the ring. 

Tactically, they weren’t at their best either, particularly Taylor, whose failure to deal with Miro Potkonen’s right jab cost her a bronze medal.

The HPU is funded by Sports Ireland, which now needs to enforce the mantra that those who ‘pay the piper’ call the tune. 

In every showdown between the Irish Sports Council – now Sport Ireland – and the IABA in the last decade the boxers left their opponents with a bloody nose.

In issues ranging from the appointment of team managers for the Olympics, the decision to overlook Walsh for the job of high performance director after the departure of Gary Keegan, the appointment of a new CEO, the departure of Walsh to the US and moving the HQ of the HPU to Abbotstown, the IABA’s view has prevailed.

They achieved this from a position of strength as boxing was the only sport delivering for Ireland in the Olympics. But everything has changed now. 

Rowing, sailing and to a lesser extent athletics were the sports that delivered for Ireland in Rio. So it is time that Sports Ireland stood up to the IABA and forced them to get their house in order.

Three things they must do immediately: 

1 – Antia’s services as the Head Coach should be secured for the next four years.
2 – A high performance director should be appointed and the terms of his contract should stipulate that he is the team manager in Tokyo.
3 – The HPU should relocate to the new training facility in Abbotstown.

And if the IABA prevaricate then their funding of both the organisation and the HPU should be suspended. It might be undemocratic but the time for kid-gloves is over. 

Unless these issues are addressed now, in four years’ time the heady days of Olympic glory could be but a distant memory.