Is Irish boxing on the ropes after Billy row?
Fractured relationships now a major cause for concern ahead of next year’s Olympics in Rio, writes John Greene
The next round in the bitter dispute over the departure of highly rated boxing coach Billy Walsh to the United States will be played out on Wednesday.
The Irish Amateur Boxing Association has been under fire since Walsh announced his resignation as head coach almost two weeks ago to take charge of the women’s team in the US. Walsh has said he left his position because he did not feel he was wanted by the IABA after contract negotiations collapsed, while Sport Ireland chief executive John Treacy has accused the IABA of attempting to deflect from its failure to hold onto the most successful coach in Irish sporting history.
But now, in this very public spat, Minster for Sport Michael Ring has appealed to both sides to stay off the airwaves as he attempts to rebuild the damaged relationship between Sport Ireland and the IABA, beginning with peace talks in his department on Wednesday.
With the Rio Olympics now less than a year away, boxing remains Ireland’s best medal hope, despite the controversy which has raged for the last fortnight. Three boxers — Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan and Joe Ward — have already qualified for the Games, and hopes remain high that Ireland might ultimately have as many as six in Brazil, including reigning champion Katie Taylor.
However, the fractured relationship between Sport Ireland and the IABA is now a major cause for concern in the countdown to the Games.
Representatives of Sport Ireland, the newly formed umbrella group for Irish sport, and the IABA appeared before an Oireachtas committee last week. Over the course of a meeting which lasted almost four hours, IABA officials — led by chairman Joe Christle — faced a grilling from TDs and senators over Walsh’s departure.
“We wanted Billy Walsh to stay,” Mr Christle said at the outset of the meeting. “He is the most successful coach in Irish Olympic history and his achievements on the international stage are unparalleled in the history of Irish sport. He brought a level of commitment and dedication to his work that challenged everyone involved in our sport to aspire to excellence. We are grateful, and always will be, to him for all that he has done for Irish boxing.”
Mr Christle, a very capable operator, showed clear signs of wanting to mend fences with Sport Ireland over the course of the Oireachtas hearing, pointing out that he enjoyed “a very warm relationship with the chairman (Kieran Mulvey) and other members of the council”.
Mr Mulvey, an experienced negotiator and mediator, also appeared conscious that the two sides must work together. “As the chairman acknowledged, I have a very good working relationship with Joe Christle, as does the chief executive,” he said. “We need to work these issues out and we will work them out.”
And the first step in that process will be Wednesday’s meeting on Kildare St.
Mr Ring, who has given additional funding of €3m to improve boxing facilities over the last four years, commands the trust of the IABA and also is known to have a good working relationship with Mr Mulvey and Mr Treacy.
The minister is said to be deeply troubled by the depar ture of Walsh, having invested a lot of time and energy into attempting to get fraught contract negotiations over the line, but equally is keen to move on.
However, such is the chasm between Sport Ireland and the IABA the reality is that there is a lot of work to be done to repair the damage. Tensions between the two are deep-rooted, going back a decade and more.
This much was highlighted in the review process of the last Olympics, despite boxing’s achievement in bringing home one gold medal, one silver, and two bronze.
The fear now is that while preparations for Rio are well advanced, the true impact of Walsh’s loss to Irish boxing may not become fully apparent in the short term.