Thursday 29 September 2016

Joe Brolly: When victory is won by foul means, it's a defeat for the human spirit

Injustice of Conlan's Rio exit leaves Irish boxer looking for answers that will never come

Joe Brolly

Published 21/08/2016 | 16:00

'Afterwards, a red-faced Conlan wept and howled at the moon, looking for answers that would never come.' Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
'Afterwards, a red-faced Conlan wept and howled at the moon, looking for answers that would never come.' Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Michael Conlan wasn't the only one robbed on Tuesday. Our under 14s were over in the West playing a very good Sarsfields team. With five minutes to go we were five behind. Then, after two good, long kick-passes, one of our midfielders, Ronan Boyle, took possession on the right-hand side of the packed square.

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He dummied to his left (as he has been taught to do since age eight), the defenders and keeper dived, and Ronan slotted the ball with his right into the empty net. Game on.

With a minute to go, our centre back kicked a long pass to our other midfielder who was on the run towards goal. He caught it, advanced into the square, and as he was about to pull the trigger, he was jumped on and dragged to the ground by two defenders. The referee blew his whistle, and signalled dramatically for a penalty. He even demonstrated why he was giving it, making a grabbing motion with his arms. Our lads punched the air in celebration as we have a young chap, Marcus Lynch, who never misses a penalty. The instruction went out for Marcus to take it. As he went to reach for the ball, the referee turned, blew the whistle and signalled that the game was over. And that was that.

Our under 14 coaches are a sporting lot, so they didn't even approach the ref. Instead, they lined the team up and they filed past the winners, shaking hands. Saint Brigid's teams tend to struggle badly when it comes to refereeing decisions. We are seen as the posh South Belfast boys. When the club was formed and we got to our first junior championship final, the Malone area was awash with blue and yellow Naomh Bríd flags. The unionist MP Bob McCartney said: "Tiochfaidh ár lá, de da, de da."

In the car home afterwards, my lad, who plays centre back, was enraged. "What the f*** was that? How the f*** could he do that to us? It's a disgrace. Can we not do something about it?" "Get an ice cream?" I suggested. At which point he gave me the John Travolta hit-man stare from Get Shorty. I looked across at his face, still sweating and red from the game, his eyes blazing, and thought to myself if he thinks that was unfair, then wait until life gets a hold of him.

His outburst was uncannily similar to Michael Conlan's a few hours earlier. The fight was a procession. At the end, the battered Russian went unsteadily to his corner, shoulders hunched. His body language was like a giant luminous sign flashing the words 'I got thrashed out there'. Before the opening bell, the RTÉ commentary team said: "All we ask for out here today is fair judging." Before the opening bell! The Russian had obviously been beaten in his first bout but had been given a unanimous verdict.

Why box at all, when you're going to win regardless? Why are Russia even sending boxers to the tournament? Why have a tournament at all? Afterwards, a red-faced Conlan wept and howled at the moon, looking for answers that would never come.

Read more: A Miserable year for Irish boxing

The night before the Conlan charade, the big ordinary Russian heavyweight Evgeny Tishchenko walked into a blizzard of punches from the Kazakh Vassiliy Levit. It was so bad I felt sorry for the ­Russian, who must have thought he was surrounded. He needn't have worried. The ­judges awarded him the gold medal unanimously. The Kazakh was philosophical. Big Tishchenko apologetic. "Don't blame me. Blame the judges," he said.

In the South Korean Olympics in 1988, Roy Jones Junior - probably the greatest amateur boxer in history - fought South Korea's Park Si-hun in the light middleweight final. I say fought. Half-a-minute into the first round, "This is pure Sugar Ray Leonard," says the commentator, as Jones overwhelms poor Park. "Jones is peppering him with multiple punches," says Ferdie Pacheco, Muhammad Ali's physician and boxing analyst. By the end of the first the fight was already over. Now, it became a showcase for Jones's awesomeness. "This guy has bewildering speed," says Pacheco. "You've got to go back to Ali to see this kind of speed." Jones just gets better and better. In the second, Park gets a standing eight from the referee after a flurry of punches dazes the Korean. The Korean is staggered badly twice again before the bell for the end of round two. "If this kid gets any ­quicker," says Pacheco, "he'll get a speeding ticket." Halfway through the third, Park was tottering. When the verdict was announced (the Korean won, courtesy of judges from Uruguay, Morocco, and Hungary), Pacheco described it as "worse than the Great Train Robbery". The Korean apologised to Jones, lifted him aloft and raised his arm. The referee apologised to Jones. "Nothing to do with me son." Jones held his face in his hands and wept. "I sacrificed nine years of my life to win an Olympic gold medal."

These events demonstrate the ­fallacy that winning is the only thing that matters. If that were so, the Korean had nothing to apologise for. For him, his gold medal was worthless. For Conlan, he had no problem if he were beaten fair and square. There is something deeper at work here than mere winning. Victory can be great, but it depends on the manner of the victory. And when a victory is won through foul means, it is always tainted. It will always be a source of anger and hurt.

Read more: ‘Amateur boxing stinks from the core right to the top’ – Conlan

When I was a boarder at St Pat's ­Armagh, we met Omagh Christian Brothers in the quarter-final of the MacRory Cup. In those days, St Pat's was very small. It was before the amalgamation with the CBS in Armagh and boarding was on the wane. Twice that day, I broke through to score goals from close range. The second was the crucial one. We were two points down near the death. I was almost on top of the goalie when I side-stepped him and drove it into the roof of the net. Only it went up through a hole in the net and high up into the air. The ref signalled a point.

The umpire at the goals was Séamus Woods, the Tyrone GAA man, who was a teacher in Omagh CBS at the time. The ref went in to consult with him and Séamus said, "It was a goal", before pointing out the hole in the net. Coming from Séamus, the ref was left in no doubt and awarded the goal. The final whistle went soon after. We had won a famous victory. We were beaten in the semi-final by a fabulous St Colman's team but that is neither here nor there.

I have always remembered what Séamus Woods did that day. He could easily have turned a blind eye. Had he done so, the record books would show that Omagh won the game. But in truth, it would have been a defeat for the human spirit, leaving a boy weeping and howling at the moon, looking for answers that would never come.

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