Seconds Out: Ireland's boxers on the ropes in Rio
Irish boxing will not look back fondly on the 2016 Olympics. Neil Loughran reflects on what went wrong and what’s next for the sport which has taken a battering in Brazil...
IF THEY had been handing out gold medals for unwanted headlines and most passports confiscated in Rio de Janeiro, Ireland would currently be basking in the reflective glow of its most successful Olympics ever.
From Michael O’Reilly’s failed drugs test on the eve of the opening ceremony, a tournament to forget for Omagh referee Michael Gallagher as he made some questionable decisions and, last but not least, the arrest of Olympic Council of Ireland president Pat Hickey and others in connection with a ticket touting scandal, serious damage has been done to the country’s sporting integrity.
Outside of boxing, it was actually a successful Olympics for the country, but that has largely - and unfortunately - been overlooked amid the post-mortem into why a games that promised so much in the ring fell so shockingly short.
The Irish Athletic Boxing Association is to conduct an internal investigation once the dust has settled, but here we look at some of the issues people are talking about in the aftermath of the Irish boxers’ first medal-less games since Athens in 2004.
BILLY WALSH: REALLY MISSED OR CONVENIENT EXCUSE?
It’s a difficult one to judge. Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes both came out during the games and stated that Walsh’s departure from the post of Ireland head coach last year had nothing to do with the team’s struggles in Rio.
The Wexford man did the same, praising the current coaching staff and saying his name shouldn’t be anywhere near it. Nobody has ever doubted Zaur Antia’s quality as a coach, but it’s his suitability for the managerial side of the role that has been questioned. There is a world of difference between the two jobs and the absence of Walsh’s organisational skills and man-management are bound to have been felt.
Essentially - without Walsh - Antia was double-jobbing, attempting to combine both and, as a result of how things went in Rio, he finds himself under the microscope. Walsh’s market value, on the other hand, couldn’t be any higher after a successful games with the USA.
HOW MUCH DID THE MICHAEL O’REILLY AFFAIR DAMAGE IRELAND?
A lot. From a purely sporting point of view, the Portlaoise middleweight was a genuine medal hope. Slick, stylish, he’s as talented a boxer as Ireland has produced in recent years, but he also plays by his own rules and has a reputation for being difficult to manage.
The knock-on effect of the O’Reilly bombshell within the team, however, may not have been as considerable as people might think. This was not like losing a Ken Egan or Darren O’Neill in years gone by, guys who were integral to the morale of the team. O’Reilly was a lone wolf.
Where it did have an effect, perhaps, was the perception of the Irish boxers outside the camp. Michael Conlan revealed last weekend he had overheard fighters and officials from other teams saying “there’s the dopers” in the Olympic gym.
One conspiracy theory doing the rounds in Rio was the AIBA wanted to punish Ireland for embarrassing the sport before the competition had even began. Certainly, they didn’t get the benefit of the doubt in any close fights.
TIME TO BRING BACK COMPUTER SCORING?
After the Seoul 1988 Olympics, when Roy Jones jnr was so famously robbed in his final, boxing moved to computer scoring. There has been some suggestion we should return to this format after some shocking decisions in Rio.
The computer system has plenty of flaws too, so there is no easy fix for boxing’s ills on the horizon. Those poor decisions, as well as Conlan’s anti-AIBA rant after his controversial exit, appear to have rattled a few cages.
Allegations of corruption and names on medals rumbled on throughout the competition and the world governing body has a lot of work to do if it is to get its house in order in time for Tokyo.
IS KATIE TAYLOR FINISHED?
No, she says she intends to continue, but the Bray woman will be 34 by the time Tokyo 2020 comes around. Taylor’s air of invincibility within the lightweight division is gone and it appears her confidence is too.
Did her father’s absence from the corner play a part? Quite possibly because she hasn’t been the same fighter this year. For Taylor to lose three times in the space of five months was previously unthinkable.
Although she probably edged her quarter-final with Mira Potkonen, Taylor - as she acknowledged herself - should be clearly beating girls like the Finn. To leave it in the hands of the judges is asking for trouble.
While she may continue, Taylor faces a long and difficult road back to the top.
WITHOUT PADDY BARNES & MICHAEL CONLAN, WHAT NEXT?
They told anybody who would listen they would be coming back from Brazil with gold medals, but it didn’t happen for Barnes and Conlan.
Weight issues led to Barnes’ shock early departure at the hands of Spain’s Samuel Carmona, while Conlan, even more shockingly, exited at the quarter-final stage despite - for my money - winning every round against Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin.
No medals means no more funding for the Belfast pair, so they are likely to be forced into joining the professional ranks. It would be a big loss, but there is plenty of talent coming behind them in their respective weight divisions.
Old School light-flyweight Stephen McKenna won a Commonwealth Youth Games gold medal last year and followed that up with his first Irish senior title while, at bantamweight, Ireland are well-stocked.
Kurt Walker has had to bide his time as Conlan has been the main man at 56kg, but now the Canal stylist will get his chance. Snapping at his heels will be the exceptionally talented James McGivern from the St George’s club in Belfast.
Both would be worthy heirs.
WAS IT REALLY THAT BAD FOR IRELAND?
Yes, in terms of medal haul. But when you look a bit closer, not much went their way either. Paddy Barnes could have got the decision against Carmona, the same with Joe Ward and Katie Taylor in their opening bouts.
To lose those three within one fight was a hammer blow. And then there was Conlan-Nikitin. The Belfast fighter was sensational, at times, in that fight, especially the first round and, with a reputation for growing into tournaments, who knows how far he could have gone?
Elsewhere, Brendan Irvine was unlucky to be paired in the last-32 with the man who would go on to win flyweight gold; David Oliver Joyce lost to the wily Albert Selimov and Steven Donnelly performed admirably in defeat to world number one Mohammed Rabii.