Thursday 14 December 2017

Comment - The IABA are trying to humiliate Bernard Dunne like they humiliated Billy Walsh

Martin Keenan from Rathkeale, in action against eventual winner, Dean Gardiner from Clonmel, during their box-off for the European Championships on Wednesday night. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Keenan from Rathkeale, in action against eventual winner, Dean Gardiner from Clonmel, during their box-off for the European Championships on Wednesday night. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you're in a hole you should stop digging. Unless of course you're the Irish Athletic Boxing Association whose attitude seems to be, "Get me another shovel. And a kango hammer. Ah to hell with it, bring on the Earthpiercer 3000 Super Drill and let's really go for this."

The latest IABA controversy concerns the refusal of the Association's executive to sanction the European Championships team selected by the sport's new High Performance director Bernard Dunne. There's also their refusal to appoint Dunne as manager of the team at the championships, something you might have thought would be automatic. There are even suggestions that the legitimacy of Dunne's appointment may be disputed by some of the IABA's head men.

Then there's the fact that at the moment two different men are claiming to be chairman of the IABA. There's the letter Sport Ireland's CEO John Treacy sent to the Association accusing them of undermining Dunne's position. Not to mention the meeting at which Sports Minister Patrick O'Donovan walked out because Association president Pat Ryan hadn't turned up. Also the fact that when Ryan did turn up for the next meeting he spoke to 'Morning Ireland' on the phone outside the Minister's office and implied that O'Donovan's interest in the current controversy had to do with constituency considerations. Meanwhile, O'Donovan admits he doesn't know who's actually in charge of the organisation he's trying to deal with. And all this with the European Championships in Ukraine less than a fortnight away.

Deep breath. Sigh. These incidents alone might be enough to convince you that, in the words of former Irish Olympic boxer Darren O'Neill, the IABA "can't sort out their own shop. It's high time they started putting themselves where they belong and putting the boxers at the top of the ladder. They don't seem to care about the boxers. It's all about power, ego and who is in control."

But what makes things much worse is that the current series of rows comes after an absolutely disastrous 12 months for Irish amateur boxing when those charged with its governance have come to seem more a hindrance than a help to the sport.

I say this as someone who went out of his way to try and avoid demonising the IABA during the Billy Walsh controversy. We were, after all, talking about volunteers who'd spent many years trying to promote the sport at grassroots level. And on the face of it the story of the IABA's relationship with Walsh beggared belief. Could the officials really be going out of their way to humiliate the coach behind the sport's amazing run of international success? Had they really refused to officially appoint him as High Performance manager even though that was the job he was doing? Had they actually been so petty as to take Walsh's secretary away from him? Did they really renege on the terms of a deal hammered out by then minister Michael Ring that could have prevented Walsh from throwing the towel in? Were some of them actually pleased to see Walsh depart for the US? Did they really think it could be business as usual once they'd done all this?

Yes. Yes six times over. And when Walsh went the IABA men who'd driven him away did what bullies always do when their victim finally reaches breaking point. They threw their hands up and went, "What's wrong with him? What did I do, what? I never said nothing."

My feeling is that at the time the IABA thought they'd have the last laugh at the Olympics. Ireland had a team packed with medal prospects and when these delivered the officials would be able to turn around, wave the medals in their critics' faces and say, "Now, did we need Billy Walsh, did we?"

We know what happened in Rio. The performance of the Walshless team was a disgrace not just to Irish amateur boxing but to Irish sport in general. There was a doping offence, boxers betting on their own fights, claims that fighters hadn't been turning up to training sessions, Paddy Barnes' weight problems and inactivity putting the kibosh on his chances, an unhappy looking Katie Taylor in the worst form of her life and the team giving the impression that rather than peaking for the Games they'd arrived in the worst possible shape.

In the context the unjust loss suffered by Michael Conlan must have seemed like a godsend to the IABA. It was spun into a fanciful narrative whereby, instead of being off form, the Irish boxers had actually been the victims of a conspiracy by the sport's world governing body because some Irish judge had said something or other at some event. (Like all conspiracy theories, this one was a bit light on the detail.)

A few gullible hacks got suckered into running with this one and they should be ashamed of themselves. Because it was nothing but an attempt to get the IABA off the hook. It didn't work. Sport Ireland's review of the games found "fundamental weaknesses," in boxing's preparation for the Games.

Most importantly, it found that, "The loss of the head coach to the programme was a major blow and was in our opinion a factor in the subsequent outcome in Rio". Shortly afterwards Walsh picked up a world coach of the year award for his work with the US women's boxing team.

This stuff may be in the past but those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. You'd have imagined that having gotten things so wrong with Walsh, the IABA would try to avoid making the same mistake again. Instead they seem to be going out of their way to do so. In over-ruling Dunne's selection and in voting to send an official rather than the head of the High Performance Unit as manager to the championships, they are attempting to humiliate the new man in the same way that they humiliated his predecessor. There is, once more, the obsession with putting the man who's in charge of the international team in what the IABA see as his proper place.

Given what happened to Walsh, Irish amateur boxing was very lucky to secure someone of Bernard Dunne's calibre as High Performance director. I'm sure the last thing the former world champion expected was to have to jump through the same hoops which bedevilled his predecessor.

That last week the IABA ordered his selection at super heavyweight Martin Keenan to fight their choice Dean Gardiner in a box-off at a few hours' notice can only have been construed as a slap in the face to Dunne. Gardiner won on a split decision but that hardly matters.

Meanwhile, Joe Christle continues as chairman. Or does he? Because another faction claim that David O'Brien is the new chairman, elected at a meeting when only five members of the Council were present.

O'Brien's supporters say five was enough because it's a majority as there are only nine members of the Council. There are 10 but they say one is illegal because he's been involved with professional boxing.

Christle's supporters say he's still the rightful king. It's a bit like the difference between the Judean Boxing Front and the Boxing Front of Judea at this stage. The minister seems to be on the side of the Christle faction but really at some stage there'll have to be a new vote. For one thing Christle has carried on past the two-year period which is normally the term allowed for a chairman.

The sad thing is that while all this posturing goes on Irish amateur boxing is in a precipitous decline. There was no television broadcast of the recent national championships, not long ago the subject of extensive RTé coverage. One bad Olympics was enough for the national broadcaster to move on. Now it's rowing's turn to take the spotlight. That's how it goes in terms of media exposure. Sports outside the mainstream live and die by their results. They can't afford to get things wrong.

Now there's talk of Sport Ireland cutting all funding to the IABA. I hope that doesn't happen because it will be the individual boxers and their clubs who suffer. But it is past time for Sport Ireland to start funding the High Performance Unit directly and entrusting it with the running of the national team. That might be unpalatable to the IABA people but by their behaviour over the last year they've shown themselves incapable of putting the best interests of our best boxers before petty internal politics.

There really is something tragic about all of this. It is, in the end, the story about men who started off by trying to do the best for the sport they loved and ended up by making it a dysfunctional laughing stock. It is time for the current executive, chairman, CEO and all, to quit and let a process of rebuilding begin. I hate to quote Oliver Cromwell but nothing seems more appropriate than his words to the English Rump Parliament in 1653. "You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go."

This fight needs to be stopped.

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