Monday 24 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: Irish boxing at risk of being put on ropes

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It's getting boring, isn't it? Another sparkly-eyed Irish boxer steps out through Arrivals at Dublin airport and straight into a blizzard of flashbulbs. Ryan Burnett's cheeky, street-kid smile looked so free of any blemish last Friday night, it wouldn't have been out of place on a Givenchy catwalk. You'd swear he found that Olympic gold in the pocket of a health-spa robe.

The Belfast boy's success is just the latest little trumpet line from that gym on Dublin's South Circular Road where Billy Walsh oversees the most productive factory floor in Irish sport.

And maybe we're becoming nonchalant about the success of boxing's High Performance programme in the way Liverpool supporters once assumed things about their club. I mean the last time our boxers came home empty-handed from a tournament, half the country had holiday homes in Tuscany.

After the 2007 World Championships in Chicago, some smart chaps in the IABA were inclined to call for the heads of Walsh and the then programme director, Gary Keegan.

Their ire gave voice to a raft of philosophical differences between old and new in Irish boxing. Now you might imagine that the gold rush since would have the committee boys offering up novenas of thanks that this revolution wasn't sabotaged by their scepticism.

For, as the IABA now so proudly declares on its website, boxing is "Ireland's most successful Olympic sport".

But those differences haven't simply prevailed, they've hardened. So much so that Walsh must be beginning to think that some in the Association would quite like him to disappear into a hole.

He's been Head Coach of High Performance for eight years now but, since Beijing, he's been the de-facto programme director too. Despite the IABA receiving Government funding for that directorship, Billy has never been compensated for an extra workload.

Then, in April, the Association finally got around to appointing a new HP director and, inexplicably, overlooked him.

The decision dismayed many in amateur boxing, not to mention those in the Sports Council who had watched Walsh develop the National Stadium operation into a crown jewel of funded sport in this country. Unhappy with the procedures involved in Dominic O'Rourke's appointment, the Council refused to pay his salary.

They also withheld funding for a newly appointed Chief Executive Officer, Don Stewart. It was their way of articulating deep unease with how the IABA goes about its business.

So what has happened since? Well, apart from the continued accumulation of medals, nothing.

Sports Minister, Mary Hanafin, was among those lauding the work of Walsh and his fellow coaches after a nine-man Irish team returned from Moscow in May, having finished second only to their hosts in the European Championship medal table.

Think about that. Second only to Russia in Europe.

Ireland won five medals at those Championships and, naturally, there was a lot of glad-handing at their homecoming.

Walsh was assured that his position as Head of High Performance would be formalised, while O'Rourke would be given a new role, in charge of "Boxing Development". An armistice had been declared.

That was the evening of June 15, only the smallprint in need of tending.

Seventy-six days later, Walsh must be inclined to wonder if all that positivity was a hallucination. Sports Council funding is still being withheld and Walsh is still, effectively, doing a job he has never been paid to do.

Eccentricities abound. The Association, bizarrely, recommended an 81-year-old as "team-manager" for those Youth Olympics in the soupy heat of Singapore and, this week, O'Rourke will travel to Barbados for the Women's World Championships despite not being a High Performance employee.

He also went to Hungary for the recent Women's European Union Championships in spite of a Sports Council insistence that there is no provision in any of their funding for his travel.

In other words, the IABA and their pay-masters still seem to exist in parallel worlds.

This is extraordinary. Pete Taylor has, I understand, been uncomfortable with any attempted input from O'Rourke into the coaching of his daughter, Katie (hardly surprising given she is already the holder of four European and two World titles).

Meanwhile, the Association seemed quite happy -- on more than one occasion recently -- to dispense with the services of Jim Moore, widely regarded as one of the best junior coaches in world boxing.

Burnett's wonderful gold medal win, then, serves really to obscure a tension bubbling underneath the surface of business on the South Circular Road. Promises have been made and habitually broken. Resolutions materialise as empty rumour.

Yet, miraculously, the medals keep on coming despite those running boxing's High Performance programme feeling so utterly disenfranchised from the Board of the IABA.

Next year is Olympic qualifying year and, before we know it, the work in the National Stadium will be our big story for London. Boxing coaches are, to my mind, the most empathetic and emotionally intelligent of people and I suspect that Billy Walsh has the most soothing voice a kid could hear in his corner.

But it's a voice that may yet be lost to Irish boxing. And, if that happens, let no one feign surprise.

Irish Independent

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