'It actually broke my heart a little bit': John Conlan on playing the pain game in Rio, and what brought him back to boxing ahead of Ireland's Tokyo tilt
On a personal and professional level, John Conlan has only tainted memories of all that transpired in Rio five years ago. In the time between, though, he rediscovered the love of the game and is excited about the possibilities that lie ahead in Tokyo. Neil Loughran reports…
IT’S days before they fly out to Tokyo, and John Conlan is feeling calm. There are still people to see, last minute jobs to do but, after weeks of buzzing here, there and everywhere, finally everything is in hand.
The morning sun pokes its head out as the Irish boxing team pull in at the McDonald’s on Kennedy Way at 8am, ready to bid farewell to family, friends and other well-wishers before embarking on the journey of a lifetime.
It is one Conlan has made before, but more on that later.
This particular trip is like no other – the masks, the tests, the waiting. Christ, the waiting. After touching down at Narita airport, it was five-and-a-half hours before they walked out the exit doors, official business finally taken care of.
A July 5 story in daily newspaper The Japan Times outlined the extent of the logistical nightmare in Tokyo with the greatest show on earth ready to arrive on its shores. That was before the city moved into its fourth state of emergency yesterday.
Illustrating the piece is a picture of the Irish team trapped in human traffic on an airport escalator. High Performance director Bernard Dunne is in the middle of the shot, further back head coach Zaur Antia chats with performance psychologist and Dublin footballer Kevin McManamon.
Conlan is there too, his silver wingclips visible on the right, sunglasses propped on top of his head.
Once the red tape has been snipped, it was on to Miyazaki - another two hour flight - where Ireland have been based for the past fortnight, the Sheraton Grande Ocean resort playing host to them and several others gearing up for the Games.
Among the rival teams there are USA and Germany, coached by Billy Walsh and Eddie Bolger. Heading to the Rio Olympics five years ago, Walsh was still getting to grips with life Stateside following his controversial departure from the same Irish set-up he helped revolutionise in the decade before.
Bolger, meanwhile, was alongside Conlan with Ireland as one of the most talented teams the country has ever had sized up the challenge. Among them was Conlan’s son, Michael, the reigning bantamweight world champion and gold medal hopeful after landing bronze in London four years earlier.
As they touched down in Brazil, none could have had any idea of the world of pain they were walking into.
The first crippling body blow was Portlaoise middleweight Michael O’Reilly’s failed drug test. When the news broke on the eve of the tournament, before O’Reilly’s identity was revealed, every member of the Irish team was questioning themselves, despite knowing they had done everything by the book.
Early exits for fancied pair Paddy Barnes and Joe Ward were devastating, compounded by golden girl Katie Taylor’s surprise defeat to Mira Potkonen before the medal stages. Michael Conlan entered the ring for his quarter-final showdown with Vladimir Nikitin as the last man standing, but darker forces were already conspiring against him.
Despite being dominated throughout, the Russian’s hand was raised – a result that would ultimately form part of a much-needed investigation into the inner workings of world governing body AIBA.
“It was the perfect storm,” sighs Conlan.
“Myself and Zaur sit sometimes and talk about it, because everything that happened was just unheard of. We had a cheating drama, Michael O’Reilly and the doping scandal, an Irish referee calling out AIBA before we left… that was discussed at the highest level of AIBA and they were basically told ‘f**k Ireland’. That put a target on our back.
“We had a horrendous experience but when I look back on it, it’s actually made me a much stronger human being and a much stronger coach. All the little bits of drama that go on in every team, and on every trip, they’re nothing. They’re absolutely nothing; they have no effect on me.
“I’m just always looking for the solutions now – it’s made me more mature in that sense, a more experienced coach. I don’t think I could have come out of Rio any different.
“I could have just folded up and said ‘you know what, I’m done with this sport’, but I see it as a great learning curve.”
THOSE phlegmatic words may roll from the tongue now, but it took a long time for the pain to subside.
All the world watched as Michael Conlan launched a single-fingered salute at the judges sat ringside following the Nikitin fight. Everybody listened as he called out AIBA for being “f**king cheats”.
What nobody else saw was the tears beneath the stands inside the soulless Riocentro boxing venue, the stomach-churning hurt as a 24-year-old man embraced his partner and young daughter, disconsolate.
Along with other family members, including mum Teresa and brother Jamie, they came to Rio to witness the culmination of a life’s work and dedication to the toughest of disciplines, only to see it ripped away in the most cruel manner possible.
Stood behind his son as he struggled to make sense of it all in the media tent moments after the madness, John Conlan’s eyes told you everything you needed to know about how deeply this cut.
“I was very angry… I was very angry with the individuals who had manipulated the whole system… these f**king gobshites, thankfully most of them are weeded out, but there are still some people there within the sport.
“I was completely devastated that all that hard work had been thrown away by people who had no moral fibre, had no ethics, no honesty; people who broke the spirit of the Olympic Games. The word Olympic became a dirty word in my mind.
“I watched the winter Olympics, the summer Olympics, I made my kids watch them… it was something pure, honest. But you know what? It came in and took a whole dream away. Maybe I was very naïve. Maybe I didn’t realise that people cheat, take drugs, pay for things.
“It actually broke my heart a little bit.”
John and Michael immediately left the Olympic village, relocating to their family’s apartment in another area of Rio. Neither attended the closing ceremony.
The father questioned everything. A former tiler and club coach with St John Bosco, getting a job heading up the Irish Athletic Boxing Association’s Ulster High Performance unit - as well as working with Ireland’s top teams – was the kind of break he had waited for.
Coming back to Belfast, though, he was no longer so sure.
“I just felt that, as a father and as a coach, I’d spent so long trying to achieve that dream of becoming an Olympic champion, and telling my son for years that if he works hard, if he stays disciplined, if he makes sacrifices, if he improves, then he would become Olympic champion. I made him believe that.
“But the reality is if somebody wants to cheat, no matter what I say you can’t achieve that. So I was very disillusioned as a coach about AIBA, about boxing.
“These were just weak people who won’t stand up against it. Now there’s a review, being paid for by AIBA! Will they give him his medal? I don’t think so...”
Does he care? Does Michael care?
“It’s in the past, and Michael doesn’t give a shit about it. He’s on his own journey now.
“It took a long time to recover, but eventually you realise there are human beings out there who are honest. You speak to officials who were actually ringside that day, because I know them all, and they all say ‘it’s terrible what happened’.
“About five months after Rio I went to the World youths and it was a different experience… it kind of restored my hunger for the Olympics and for boxing.
“I got another buzz for it, because there’s nothing better than seeing a young person come through that whole journey, from being a youth and junior, winning the elites, going into the team and taking off from there.
“It’s amazing, and it’s a privilege as a coach to be a part of that.”
A YEAR on from when Tokyo 2020 was originally scheduled, it is now just 11 days until Ireland’s class of 2021 finally get the chance to strut their stuff. There may be no crowds and empty stadia for this strangest of Games, but that in no way diminishes the achievement of reaching this grand stage.
Just as he was before leaving for Japan, Conlan is calm.
There is no Michael this time around, his son now forging a glittering a career in the pro ranks, and the removal of parental responsibility from an already heady mix has already given preparation for Tokyo a unique twist.
“I’ve had three different experiences. I was pool coach for London but I didn’t get to go, so I went as a supporter. For the whole qualifying process that time I was in the house - we had no live stream or anything. It was just whatever people were putting up on social media.
“That was a horrendous experience – round one he’s down, round two he’s level, and then there was eight minutes of nothing until you got the final result. It was awful.
“The second time I was with Michael on his journey through the WSB [World Series of Boxing], seven fights in 14 weeks, all over the world, from Venezuela to Sicily. Anywhere you can think of, we were there, or that’s how it felt. It was incredible.
“My first priority was as a coach, and doing my job, making sure I ticked all the boxes to help him and Paddy qualify. It was more professional, but then probably a couple of hours after it started to sink in that I’d helped him on his journey of getting to the Olympics.
“Rio was a completely different experience, because he was seeded number one as reigning world champion… this time I don’t have any parental responsibilities. In saying that, I’ve been with Aidan Walsh since the Commonwealth Youths in 2015, I’ve been around Kurt [Walker] and Brendan [Irvine] for a long time, Michaela [Walsh] too, Kellie Harrington. You have that bond with them, and you want to see them succeed.
“There’s not that same anxiety or nervousness you might have when it’s your own child going into the ring, it’s more relaxed, more professional… I’m actually really enjoying it. I spent the guts of five years working with athletes, helping them get to this stage - I’m not nervous now.
“We’re here because of everything we’ve done to get here.”
Typical of Irish boxing, however, the build-up to Tokyo 2020 has not been without background noise.
In April an anonymous 1,500 word document was distributed among members of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association, taking aim at Dunne and the High Performance unit – including attacks on the former world champion’s leadership and interpersonal skills.
The document, which offered no data to support any of the allegations made and didn’t list the names of those who took part in the survey, also recommended that he should not be offered another four-year contract.
Ireland’s performance at the subsequent European Olympic qualifier in June - when Aidan and Michaela Walsh, Kellie Harrington, Aoife O’Rourke and Emmet Brennan joined Brendan Irvine and Kurt Walker on a seven-strong team – was seen by some as vindication for Dunne and his coaching staff in the wake of such stinging criticism.
Conlan, though, insists he “couldn’t care less” how it was perceived.
“Na - I’m an Ulster High Performance head coach and I’ve had to deal with some toxic people for a long time. I don’t listen, I don’t pay attention to it. Some people, no matter how successful you are or how well you do, want to bring you down. It’s their nature.
“That’s fine, and they’re entitled to their opinion, to have their say. I think a lot of the information was false, misled bullshit. In reality, they didn’t give these kids a chance. Sometimes it’s shameful the way people are called out on social media and this kind of thing, and there’s no accountability.
“We’re talking about mental health and everything, but the abuse the High Performance, the coaches, Bernard and some of the athletes have taken has just been unacceptable.
''Maybe these people should look at themselves in the mirror and hang their heads in shame at some of the bullshit they’ve said.
“We just get on with our work. They don’t see what the guys are doing on a day-to-day basis, how much they’ve improved, how difficult it was through Covid.
“We have been limited in being able to bring in transitional athletes, to look for the next Michael Conlan - an 18-year-old who comes in fresh, wins an elite title and then one year later qualifies for an Olympic Games.
“But those same people who want to see you fail are the same people who are at the airport patting you on the back, getting in the photographs when things are going well. I know who those people are, and I don’t pay any attention to them.
“We’re focused on one thing and one thing only.”