Boxing: The rocky road for Ireland's Olympic hopefuls
On Monday, Billy Walsh and Pete Taylor found themselves looking around the stern, old architecture of Ukraine's Olympic training base and wondering how hard it would be to build the equivalent at home.
It had been a struggle just to get access to the elite training camp in the Koncha-Zaspa district of Kiev, because no one in Europe is particularly keen on facilitating Irish boxers anymore. Seems it feels a little too much like self-harm.
So they must go, as Billy puts it, "cap in hand" for acceptance into the kind of pitiless training environment that offered perfect preparation for the final Olympic qualifying tournament which gets under way in Trabzon, Turkey tomorrow.
Since the Beijing Games, Irish boxers have harvested almost 70 medals from major tournaments around the world. They are now feared virtually to the point of paranoia. Two years ago, they prepared at the same wooded Ukrainian base for the European Championships in Moscow, from which they would plunder five medals. That haul put them second only to Russia in the final medals table. A statistic interpreted rather coldly in Kiev.
In camp this time, the Ukraine head coach indicated a preference for non-cooperation. He would not, he said, allow his No 1 team spar with Irish boxers. Why? He'd read a complaint somewhere from Russia that they'd facilitated the Irish with a training camp prior to last year's European Championships in Ankara only for Joe Ward and Ray Moylette to then beat two Russian fighters en route to gold.
Why educate a dangerous rival?
Except, the Ukrainian had got his facts wrong. Ward and Moylette didn't go to any Russian training camp prior to those Europeans. The bulk of their preparation had been done in the High Performance gym on the South Circular Road. It almost always is.
After some persuading, a kind of reconciliation was reached. For one day last week, the Ukraines sparred the Irish. "It was very, very tough," reflects Walsh. "All of their boxers had already qualified for London. Three of them are world champions. But the lads acquitted themselves really well.
"It was a perfect environment to train in. There were wrestlers and weight-lifters, all kinds of athletes. But I think our days may be numbered for being allowed into the top training camps. It's an awful shame we don't have even one place like that in Ireland where you could have all the top athletes feeding off one another, learning from each other.
"Then we could bring these countries over to train with us, show them how good we are instead of always having to go cap-in-hand."
The Irish left Kiev on Wednesday and have now settled into their base in Trabzon where, over the next week, seven boxers will attempt to join John Joe Nevin, Michael Conlan and Darren O'Neill on the team already qualified to compete at the London Games.
The change of scenery will have been welcome, given the relative isolation of the Kiev camp and the fact that it was almost entirely devoid of luxury.
"People probably imagine these training camps take us to exotic places," chuckles Walsh. "Well I would invite anyone to go to where we were in Kiev and see how exotic it is. The place was old, a little run-down. Training camps are boring. We train two, three times a day. In between, it's just food and rest. So there's a lot of down-time. We run quizzes, the boys play cards and they have their Gameboys and PlayStations and tons of films. But it's no holiday camp."
On Monday night, psychologist Gerry Hussey gave a presentation to the group in which he sought, essentially, to demystify the Olympics. The word itself can, occasionally, all but subsume the event. But, if the team could go to the recent Chemistry Cup in Germany and win five medals, why not expect the same of themselves in every tournament, irrespective of name?
"The Chemistry Cup was like a mini World Championships in some ways," says Walsh. "There was so much quality in it, 20 nations competing, seven world champions. But we used it primarily as a training exercise. So we were pretty happy to come away with a gold and four bronze. There is that expectation now. We go out now expecting to deliver. On our day, we can beat anybody in the world. We firmly believe that."
Ward's gold was a reassertion of the Moate teenager's extraordinary talent after his surprise defeat at last year's World Championships in Baku. He also won the 'Best Technical Boxer' award, judged across all weight divisions.
"Joe was phenomenal," agrees Walsh. "He showed just what he can do when he has the proper focus and stimulation."
Another man showing impressive form is lightweight David Oliver Joyce. The Athy boxer was just four seconds away from booking his Olympic ticket in Baku, only to lose out on a warning. Then, when beaten at the National Championships by Michael McDonagh, it looked like his chance was gone.
But McDonagh's withdrawal from the squad in Germany opened an unexpected door for Joyce and, maybe more pertinently, offered a glimpse of the remarkable depth of boxing talent now at Ireland's disposal.
"What happened David Oliver was heart-breaking in Baku," says Walsh. "He thought his chance had passed him. But, at the moment, we have an elite team at home training for a tournament in May. If anyone gets injured here, these guys are ready to step in.
"We have European medallists and Olympians sitting at home, even an Olympic medallist. They can't get on this team. That was the beauty with David Oliver. We could just call him up and he's like a child here after getting a present at Christmas. Now he's thinking 'What have I got to lose here?"
Walsh admits that today's draw will be vital to Irish chances. At the Kiev training camp, one recurring topic of conversation among teams was the potential difficulty of trying to win decisions against Turkish fighters in Turkey.
Walsh rejects any instinct to worry.
"We have boxed all these Turks over the last while and none of them have beaten us," he says. "So, if we get a level playing field ...
"Look, this is an Olympic qualifier, so you expect it to be a level playing field. If it is, I don't fear too much from the Turks. Yes, they will raise their performance because they're at home, but our lads are aware of that. If we perform to the best of our ability, I don't see any of the Turks beating us. That said, everyone's a threat because everybody sees this as their last chance and there's four years to wait for the next one."
Two of the team, light-welter Ross Hickey and heavyweight Tommy McCarthy will have to win gold in Turkey to secure Olympic qualification. The avowed target of qualifying five boxers for London still holds, albeit Walsh hopes it might be surpassed.
After all, two of Ireland's medallists in Beijing, Kenny Egan and Darren Sutherland, only qualified at the final qualifying stage, so the next Olympic hero may not necessarily be the most obvious one. Walsh believes success depends, ultimately, on how people deal with the pressure.
"At the end of the day, we can win as many World and European medals as we like, but the Sports Council and everybody else really only focuses on Olympic medals," he says.
"That's what they want, what everybody wants to see. So there's severe pressure on everybody to produce the goods. And the expectation can be very unrealistic. I mean, only John Joe Nevin of the team that went to Beijing has qualified so far. That's a massive turnaround in four years.
"We have a culture in place where we've produced great performances and we hope to continue to do that. But there are no guarantees. You hear people talking about Joe Ward and Katie Taylor winning gold medals and it's a load of baloney when they haven't even qualified yet. So there's a bit of madness going around. People don't realise what these boxers have to go through."
IRISH TEAM FOR FINAL OLYMPIC QUALIFYING TOURNAMENT
Trabzon, April 14-22:
Must reach semi-final to qualify for Olympics.
David Oliver Joyce
Must reach semi-finals.
Must win gold.
Must reach final.
Must reach semi-finals and, if beaten, lose to gold medallist.
Must win gold.
Must reach final.