Sunday 18 February 2018

Boxing PR disaster can still be sorted out

John Greene

John Greene

THIS is the centenary year of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association and it was intended to be a memorable one. Thanks to the events of the last few days, it may well be memorable for all the wrong reasons.

With so much going right for a sport which boasts an extraordinary team of world-class fighters, there was every reason to hope that the World Championships in Baku next month would be cause for great celebration in the sport here, both in terms of medals and Olympic qualification. After all, the first eight fighters in each category qualify for London and the Irish team features Olympic, World and European medalists.

The IABA was also chosen to host this year's European Youth Championships, which begin tomorrow week in Dublin, and this event too was seen as a key part of the centenary celebrations.

But the association's reputation has taken a pounding in the past week. The curtain came down on an eventful few days in the ring at the National Stadium yesterday evening but the uncertainty surrounding the make-up of the Irish team for Baku rumbles on.

On Friday, the IABA seemed to row back on its earlier position that the team for Baku would be picked based on yesterday's results. It's understood, in fact, that there is not agreement within the IABA itself over the matter and that attempts will be made this week to resolve it before next weekend's selection meeting. It is highly unlikely that those boxers who did not compete in the box-off but who are seen as genuine medal contenders will be excluded from the team. The view within the association appears to be that the process -- including what are likely to be heated debates this week -- will strengthen its hand for Baku, not weaken it.

But it has still been a damaging few days. Over time, Irish sport has been learning slowly and painfully what the real essence of elite sport is. Ironically, it is boxing which has led the way in terms of preparing its athletes for major championships. Gary Keegan and Billy Walsh made sure their boxers wanted for nothing and were cocooned from the politics that is rife in their sport, just as it seems to be rife across the entire Irish sporting world.

The Irish boxing set-up has been a lesson to others. You can be certain that athletes with medal-winning potential look with an envious eye at their boxing counterparts and the way in which they are looked after and shielded in Walsh's high performance unit.

The IABA though is a notoriously independent body which bristles at the first hint of outside interference. It has at best a turbulent relationship with its paymasters at the Irish Sports Council. While other governing bodies have been quick to give in to the demands of the ISC in the past, the IABA has always stood its ground.

It's possible that the origins of the controversy of the last few days lie specifically in the IABA's misgivings over elements within the sports council, but, that being said, enormous damage has been done by its actions because they have directly impacted upon its own boxers.

Those boxers most affected by the events of the last week are furious. On the eve of a major championships, it flies in the face of everything that boxing's elite unit represents to have such unnecessary stress and uncertainty imposed on the fighters.

This is a regrettable turn of events, especially when you consider that the Irish squad is feared worldwide and has the potential to be a dominant force at every major championships it competes in, including next summer's Olympics.

Other federations, who only months ago would have been worried at the strength of the Irish team for the World Championships, will have taken comfort from the events of recent days.

Sure, the box-offs represented a chance for several fighters, the most high-profile of whom is Kenny Egan, to make a late play for inclusion on the team. Box-offs are commonplace in Russia and Cuba, for example, and there is a strong argument in favour of staging them before a major event.

However, the IABA's boxing council got this one wrong by initially insisting that selection for Baku would be based purely on the box-off. Those boxers who have already proven themselves worthy should have been excused last week, praised for their commitment and reassured their places were safe. The box-offs should then have been presented to the other boxers and the public as a last chance to stake a claim for the World Championships. This has worked for the sport here in the past.

Who is to say, for example, that Egan (pictured) is not a welcome addition to that team? He is a proven fighter and although now clearly second best to Joe Ward at his accustomed weight (81kg), his decision to step up to 91kg may yet work in his, and Ireland's, favour, despite his struggles this weekend to get over the line.

The next week is now critical for Irish boxing. On Friday, the IABA said its only interest is to ensure the strongest possible team is sent to Baku and in its defence it has a good track record of picking the right team for battle. There is still time to make it right, even if mending fences with some of its own boxers might take a little longer.

Sunday Indo Sport

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