Thursday 23 January 2020

EXCLUSIVE: 'No one stayed behind with Katie to help with the preparation' - Pete Taylor in scathing attack on IABA

In 2012, Pete Taylor was ringside when Katie took gold in London. This week he watched his daughter's 'nightmare' defeat to Mira Potkonen from afar. We sent our best ever boxing team to Rio, he tells our reporter, but they were overtrained and the result was a shambles

Pete and Katie Taylor after qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Pete and Katie Taylor after qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Pete Taylor in Bray boxing club. Photo: David Conachy
Katie Taylor, right, of Ireland in action during her defeat to Finland's Mira Potkonen in Rio. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Katie Taylor is consoled by Team Ireland coach Zaur Antia after defeat to Mira Potkonen in Rio this week. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Happier times: Katie Taylor winning gold in London. Photo: David Maher
Michael Conlan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Oliver Joyce. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Paddy Barnes. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Steven Donnelly. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Joseph Ward. Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Michael O'Reilly
Brendan Irvine. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The pain of distance was not kind on Pete Taylor this week, leaving him what felt like a galaxy removed from Rio and his daughter's doomed Olympic defence.

At the London Olympics, he'd been in the pocket of the drama as Katie claimed gold in a vast East London hangar. It felt the best of times, a whole nation exulting in the beautifully intimate story of a father and daughter climbing together to the top of Mount Olympia.

So much has changed, however, and Pete took himself abroad this week, knowing the commotion and inevitable questions that would fall his way as Katie prepared to box in Rio.

And, watching her lose that contentious verdict to Mira Potkonen on Monday was, he says, "a nightmare".

But he is unwilling to talk about the changed circumstance of their relationship, preferring to keep family matters private. Taylor simply believes that the worst performance by an Irish boxing team at the Olympics since Athens 04 needs to be coldly parsed and analysed. That team, he says, was the strongest this country has ever sent to the Games.

And somebody should now be answerable for its collapse.

His time in the High Performance unit coincided, not simply with Katie's success, but with that boxing academy on the South Circular Road becoming synonymous with glory. "A medal factory" as some came to call it.

Taylor believes that that same unit has now begun falling apart.

Michael Conlan reacts to judges after his defeat to Vladimir Nikitin of Russia during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Michael Conlan reacts to judges after his defeat to Vladimir Nikitin of Russia during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

He suggests the eight-strong team that went to Rio was hopelessly overtrained. "Every one of our boxers looked tired," Taylor told me this week. "They all looked overtrained. And everyone could see that the tactics were poor.

"You could see them being told to 'dominate, dominate, dominate.' But that's not what boxing is all about. It's simple, you go out and box. Hit your opponent more than you get hit. The best team we've ever sent away to the Olympics and it's been a shambles.

"But it (High Performance) has been falling apart since London. The timing of Billy Walsh going left it in a mess."

He is loathe to put the blame for the performances on head coach Zaur Antia, with whom he shared many a corner for Irish boxing. The wily Georgian came to look a faintly haunted figure in Rio as one Irish contender after another came out of the Olympic ring having underperformed. Taylor suggests that any forensic trail on this should lead right back to the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA). Which, of course, leads to a story as old as High Performance itself, the struggle to reconcile a stubborn, neurotic organisation with the world of elite athletes and modern thinking.

Taylor had plenty of arguments with the association during his time as their employee, believing that they never fully understood the concept of High Performance or appreciated the vital input of coaches right back down to club level. He could detect so many alarming signals emanating from the camp in Rio, he suggests the collective collapse spoke of a management vacuum that needs addressing.

The predicament of Paddy Barnes especially, the Belfast light-fly wasting himself to a virtual shell to make the 49 kilo weight, was - Taylor believes - emblematic of a broad malaise.

"With all the structures around him, all the doctors and sports scientists, Paddy went up to 58 kilos," says Taylor. "At that, his body fat must have been 9-10pc. Why didn't somebody say to him 'Paddy, when you're 49 kilos, your body fat's going to be only 2-3pc. You might make the weight, but you can't perform at that!'"

Why wasn't he monitored better?

"In my view, Paddy almost has a case to sue the association. He's an employee of theirs, it's their responsibility to protect him. It's not just about winning medals, it's about a boxer's health. That should be the first consideration every time.

"When Paddy retires, he has a big chance of facing osteoporosis and other issues from trying to make an unnatural weight. Then they're asking him why he's not performing. Paddy is a warrior who, in my view, put his life on the line for Ireland this week. Even at 49 kilos, when he was wrecked, he still threw more punches than his opponent. If he'd been given the right tactics, he'd have won that fight by controlling the distance and the tempo.

"But a decision about his weight should have been made after London. He's getting older, the weight is getting harder to make. You've just got to make these decisions even if the boxer himself objects to it. At the end of the day, what is your priority? Medals or the boxer's well-being?

"How can you lose nearly a sixth of your body weight and expect to function properly? You can't do it. It's insane."

While the judging in Rio generated fierce criticism and, on Wednesday, triggered the expulsion of a number of officials by the governing AIBA, Taylor believes that the focus here should be on Ireland's preparation, not the peculiar whims of those sitting ringside in blazers.

Yes, he agrees, the judging in Rio was "crap", but to fixate on that story would be to largely miss the truth of this Olympics for Ireland's boxers.

Of his own daughter, Pete says: "I thought Katie looked frail compared to how she usually looks. But every one of them looked overtrained.

"Again, you could see the tactics were absolutely terrible. No matter what the scoring is, boxing is boxing. You hit them, they don't hit you. I mean tactics won Katie the Olympic final in London, that's absolutely certain. But you can't control what the judges are doing, so you've just got to fight your own fight."

He is critical, too, of the fact that all three High Performance coaches, Antia, John Conlan and Eddie Bolger, travelled to Rio with the seven male boxers, given that Katie was not with them as the female tournament started a full week later. "No one stayed behind with Katie to help with the preparation," he reveals.

"Would it have been that big a deal for one of the coaches to stay behind?"

It's Taylor's view, nonetheless, that Katie won Monday's fight, just as it is his view that she also won the fights against Yana Alekseevna in April and Estelle Mossely in May. Yet, all three verdicts were given against her on split decisions, thus ending a remarkable 11-year stretch during which she was untouchable as the world's finest female lightweight boxer.

Pete believes she could have done with better communication from her corner going into the last round against Potkonen, yet also suspects there may be other, bleaker factors effecting an influence here.

"When the fight finishes 38-38, then they've got to decide it by judging who is the better technical boxer," he suggests. "How can you say Mira Potkonen is a better technical boxer than Katie? Do they even know what that means?

"The trouble is no one's accountable anymore.

"No disrespect to Potkonen, but she's not fit to lace Katie's boots. She's never taken a round off her before this. I personally think the authorities don't want Katie at the top any more. I get the impression they just want new faces there."

He can't say if Katie will box again, albeit Katie's immediate indication after stepping from the Olympic ring was that she intends to continue. But Pete Taylor fears a broad exodus now of Ireland's most experienced boxers from the unit that delivered so many glory days in Beijing and London.

And he fears that, without the proper people in place, rebuilding that unit could now prove "impossible".

He has long articulated frustration at how Ireland's best amateur boxers are all but discarded once their medal potential begins to recede, ignoring the potential educational value they could offer to junior boxers in the country.

"Once a boxer is finished, they (the IABA) don't care about them," says Taylor. "I remember one President we had saying there was a hundred Katie Taylors out there. That's their attitude to everything.

"Apparently, we've another 20 Billy Walshes, too, another 20 Pete Taylors. Well, if we have, where are they all?

"They never look after the boxers. What did they do for Ken (Egan)? For Eric Donovan? Michael Carruth was laying carpets after winning an Olympic gold. He even spent some time on the dole. An Olympic gold medallist? That's typical of the association.

"Everything should have been restructured after London, but the IABA were just happy with the laurels. I remember myself, Billy and Zaur sitting in a coffee shop in the Westfield Shopping Centre after winning those medals and saying everything needed to be rebuilt now. But they were just words in the end.

"They put Zaur in charge, he was trying to make a big impact and my view is they're all overtrained now. Straight away, they should have put another leader in there, but that would have cost more money. So there's no leader. The trouble is, everything with the association is a power struggle.

"Even my own family circumstances, which I don't want to talk about, you wouldn't even get a text or an email from the association after all the years that I worked for them.

"They thought it was just a matter of Katie turning up and winning the gold. They took her for granted. They take everyone for granted, boxers and coaches. They don't see the work that all the club coaches put in, they don't appreciate it."

And the future for Irish boxing after this Rio collapse?

"Well the Sports Council and the IABA are always at loggerheads, even at the best of times," he sighs. "At the end of the day, the management of the IABA needs to be shaken up, new people need to be put in place. It all needs to be restructured.

"It has to start with the IABA and they have to develop a good relationship with the Sports Council. Because this is the fault of the IABA, it's nobody else's fault. They've put people into positions where the pressure's probably got to them.

"They don't mind taking the plaudits when the boxers come home with medals, they're happy enough getting the slaps on the back. Well now they should be taking the criticism as well. I mean the Michael O'Reilly business was handled terribly. Where was the manager? The press knew about it before the boxers."

How does that happen? Did the association know?

"When it broke at the draw, all of the boxers must have been thinking 'Did somebody take something by mistake?' Because High Performance is totally clean. You never hear of a boxer taking drugs. But nobody knew who it was, so they must have been all nervous wrecks. Because it's so easy to take something by mistake, there's so many banned substances.

"That story should never have gone near the coaches. The manager should have taken care of it. But where was he?"

Taylor believes that every effort should now be made to keep serial medal winners like Katie and Barnes, and Michael Conlan and Joe Ward, within the system, but does not expect to see that happen.

"All our boxers should be getting jobs within the association when they finish boxing," he says. "In Germany, when they finish their careers, they have three more years on funding. They use them for education. Paddy Barnes should be used as a coach for junior boxing. Everybody would look up to him. And he should be slowly weaned off the training. Katie is the only one who has properly commercialised her career in Ireland. But then there's nobody looking after that for the boxers.

"The problem is that High Performance should be seen as a flagship of the IABA, but they're always just trying to undermine it. My view is that people like Paddy, Katie and Michael Conlan should be guaranteed funding for the next number of years irrespective of whether they medal.

"Imagine the pressure on Paddy going to Rio, thinking that he'd probably lose his funding if he didn't come back with another medal? A double Olympic medallist, who has a child at home? Ridiculous.

"All of the success we've had was in spite of the IABA. Katie's success was certainly in spite of them." Given the entrenched mindsets he himself encountered within the association, Taylor does not envisage revolution any time soon.

"There'll be a bit of an uproar for a couple of weeks, they might appoint a new High Performance manager," he says. "But that'll be another joke. It'll be someone who someone knows. That's always the way it works.

"You know I'm still part of the association, I still run a boxing club, and me saying all this will annoy them. I don't care. Someone has to tell the truth. They tell us women's boxing is thriving in Ireland, but women's boxing is going nowhere. Fair play to Kellie Harrington getting a silver at the Worlds, but all the top girls were going for the Olympic weights, trying to get to Rio.

"The people in charge of women's boxing in Ireland now weren't even club coaches. It's ridiculous."

Golden generation: The eight boxers who held our hopes

1. Katie Taylor

Women's light 60kg

Ireland's golden girl of the London Olympics four years ago, more of the same was expected of Taylor, despite her suffering several uncharacteristic losses earlier in the year. It was not to be for Taylor, who was left distraught and speechless as she suffered defeat to Finland's Mira Potkonen in her first fight.

2. Michael Conlan

Men's bantam 56kg

Michael Conlan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

A bye into the round of 16, and a comfortable win over Armenia's Aram Avagyan, meant Conlan just had to beat Russia's Vladimir Nikitin to secure Ireland's first boxing medal, but a hard-to-accept unanimous loss for Conlan resulted in a fight and post-fight interview that will go down in Irish Olympic history.

3. David Oliver Joyce

Men's light 60kg

David Oliver Joyce. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Joyce, aged 29, made a perfect start to his first Olympics, beating Seychelles' Andrique Allisop, but his dream was not to be realised as he went down swinging to Albert Selimov of Azerbaijan in the round of 16.

4. Paddy Barnes

Men's light fly 49kg

Paddy Barnes. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

After getting a bye in the first round, hot-favourite Barnes suffered a shock loss on a split decision to Spain's Samuel Carmona Heredia in his first fight. Failing to get a third Olympics medal meant it was a Games to forget for the Belfast man.

5. Steven Donnelly

Men's welter 69kg

Steven Donnelly. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Donnelly was Ireland's only boxer to win two fights in this Olympics. He beat Zohir Kedache of Algeria and Mongolia's Byambyn Tüvshinbat to leave him one fight away from an Olympic medal, but a split-decision loss to Moroccan Mohammed Rabii meant Donnelly returned to Ballymena with dignity, albeit empty-handed.

6. Joseph Ward

Men's light heavy 81kg

Joseph Ward. Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

A gold and a bronze at European and World Championships respectively last year, 22-year-old Ward was tipped to bring home a medal in his first Olympic Games. The referee docked points from Ward controversially as he lost in his first fight to Ecuador's Carlos Andres Mina.

7. Michael O'Reilly

Men's middle 75kg

Michael O'Reilly

Gold medallist of the 2015 European games, O'Reilly was a definite Irish medal hope, but he made headlines and history for all the wrong reasons, becoming the first Irish athlete to be sent home from an Olympic Games after testing positive for a banned substance.

8. Brendan Irvine

Men's fly 52kg

Brendan Irvine. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

A unanimous points decision in the round of 32 saw Irvine lose out on his Olympic debut to Uzbekistan's Shakhobidin Zoirov. Irvine admitted after the fight that he was beaten by the "better man".

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