In almost a century of Olympic competition Ireland has won 31 medals. Of those, 16 have come in boxing. Fighting is in our blood, we’re good at it. We might not be the fastest runners in the world, the greatest swimmers, or the most powerful, but stick us in the squared circle and we’ll give anyone a go.
Seven of those 16 medals came between 2008 and 2012, the highlight Katie Taylor’s historic gold in London. We were suddenly a world-force at something other than hurling and went to major finals expecting to medal. Other nations feared us, dreaded being drawn against our fighters, knowing that to do so was to be on the first flight home.
And then it all went to shit. First our guru, Billy Walsh, the man responsible for our high-performance unit and the man who’d overseen all those beautiful Olympic medals, was allowed to leave. Unwilling to meet his fairly modest demands the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) instead all but packed Walsh’s bags for him, sending him into the grateful arms of USA Boxing where, in his new role, he returned the States to its rightful place atop the pecking order and earned himself the Best World Coach Award for 2016.
In their wisdom those at the IABA thought it could prosper without Walsh, that the success would continue, the medals keep coming. They were wrong. Although in some instances there were mitigating circumstances (Katie’s familial issues, questionable judging in Michael Conlan’s bout) the Irish boxing team performed abysmally at last year’s Rio Olympics, undoing all of Walsh’s good work in a few miserable days and returning home medal-less, reputations in tatters.
Given the circumstances you would have thought those at the helm of amateur boxing in this country would have learned their lesson, that in future they would cede to the requests of those in the know, and not treat integral figures like meddlesome little boys. Again, wrong. Having appointed former World Champion, Bernard Dunne, as its new High Performance Director, the IABA immediately undermined his authority by refusing to sanction the team selected by Dunne for the upcoming European Championships.
In fact, so piqued were they by Dunne’s choice of super heavyweight, Rathkeale’s Martin Keenan, that they ordered a box-off against their preference, Dean Gardiner. The latter won the hastily arranged contest on a split decision, booking his place in the Ukraine games later this month. Gardiner’s victory appeared to have vindicated the IABA, but that’s besides the point; if Dunne selected Keenan then Keenan should have gone, end of story. But clearly IABA Chairman, Joe Christie, Irish heavyweight champion in 1980 and now a practising barrister, knows more about modern-day boxing than a fighter who reached the pinnacle of the sport less than a decade ago.
IABA President, Pat Ryan, was, at one point, Peter Taylor’s assistant coach and has a long history of involvement across all levels of Irish boxing. Sound credentials, but having scanned his CV I have yet to find evidence of professional world titles or international coaching awards. The rest of the board consists of a solicitor, a CEO, a senior project manager and a day surgeon. With such wisdom and expertise on offer I don’t know why the IABA even bothered hiring a High Performance Director, if a senior project manager can’t figure out how to outsmart the best boxing talents in the world then exactly who can?
As is so often the case in Irish sport, the hopes and dreams of our finest young talents are being hampered by a band of fusty old men. Rather than focus on providing the best environment for our athletes to prosper, this group of power-hungry individuals are allowing their own personal interests and grievances to get in the way, damaging the careers of both coaches and fighters and scuppering any future chances of Olympic medals