With the future of boxing as an Olympic sport in doubt, this timely two-part documentary looks at the Irish boxing team’s ill-fated trip to Rio in 2016 as, one by one, their medal hopes were cruelly extinguished. eir sport 1, Tues, Dec 11th 11pm
The Irish team was ranked number five in the world heading into the Rio games. From nowhere back in Athens in 2004, Irish boxing had slowly established itself on the world stage and headed to Rio with two world champions, a defending Olympic champion in Katie Taylor, and several other big medal hopes. Light flyweight Paddy Barnes had secured bronze in Beijing and London, while bantamweight Michael Conlan also had a bronze to his name from four years earlier.
It was the strongest group of Irish Boxers ever assembled and they were confident of a decent medal haul. But was this confidence justified? The build-up to the games hadn’t been ideal with the departure of long-term head coach Billy Walsh, but he had an able and popular interim replacement in Zaur Antia and the group was in good spirits as they arrived in Rio for a pre-games training camp.
But there were dark clouds on the horizon. The decision to revert from electronic judging to the old paper-based system in the weeks before the games began did nothing to dispel the rumours of corruption that had plagued the sport for some time. A new group of judges, ‘The Magnificent Seven’, was appointed, many felt, merely to ensure that key decisions went as expected.
Added to this was the admission of the entire Russian team despite a wholesale ban being imposed on them for what was termed a ‘national programme’ of doping following the Sochi Winter Olympics two years earlier. It was a decision that was to have profound consequences for one of the Irish team at least as Michael Conlan lost a controversial quarter-final bout after clearly out-boxing Russian Vladimir Nikitin.
There appeared to be a vendetta against Irish boxing at the highest level. In a tense atmosphere fierce criticism of the AIBA from former judge Seamus Kelly riled the authorities and it seemed as though any close decisions inevitably went against us after that.
Within the camp things started to go downhill on the day of the draw when it was announced that middleweight Michael O’Reilly had failed a drugs test. He was eventually sent home in disgrace. Then, after struggling to make the weight, team captain Barnes lost his opening fight following a lacklustre performance. It was another major blow and one that probably should never have happened in the first place. From then on it was defeat after defeat as the dream turned into a nightmare.
Joe Ward, Steven Donnelly, David Oliver Joyce, Brendan Irvine – one by one they fell. Even Katie Taylor, who was considered a banker for most people in the run up to the games, lost to Finnish fighter Mira Potkonen who had travelled to the Royal Hotel in Bray just a few years before to face Taylor in an exhibition match where she spoke of how privileged she felt to be fighting her great hero.
The departure of Taylor’s father Pete from her training set-up and the fall-out from that has been well documented and her performances had undoubtedly dipped as a result in the run-up to the games. It was a sad end to the Olympic dream for one of Ireland’s greatest ever sportspeople.
Ireland’s hopes rested on Conlan as he prepared to take on Russian Nikitin in his quarter-final. By now it was clear that something was very badly wrong following a host of poor judging decisions that clearly favoured Russian and some former Soviet state fighters. The Irish camp had even been informed three days before the fight that Conlan would lose – by a Russian. And so it proved.
But there were many who felt that catalogue of poor judging decisions in Rio merely masked what were significant flaws within the Irish boxing set-up. The decision to allow long-serving head coach Billy Walsh to leave the previous October to manage the US women’s team was roundly criticised at the time, but it seemed as though it had truly come home to roost in Rio.
There was no natural head or spokesperson for the team as they struggled to deal with the fall-out from the shock revelation about O’Reilly’s failed drugs test. The fact that O’Reilly, who was coached by IABA president Pat Ryan, hung around the camp for a further five days before finally leaving for home didn’t look good either. It caused serious disquiet among the remainder of the group, with Conlan even suggesting that the decision to allow him to stay on actually sank the team in the end.
The repercussions for the IABA would continue long after the lights went out on the closing ceremony and it is clear that there remain clear divisions within the organisation about how things were handled even to this day. There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned. One thing is certain, however, it was a sad end to an adventure that had started out with such great hope and expectation.
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