'There is no pathway for young boxers' - The major issues facing Ireland's most successful Olympic sport

Funding - or the lack of it - has reached crisis point in a flagship sport

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This year just 11 boxers are being funded directly by Sport Ireland

This year just 11 boxers are being funded directly by Sport Ireland

SPORTSFILE

Jude Gallagher celebrates beating Regan Buckley at the IABA Irish National Elite Championships. Photos: Piaras Ó Mídheach

Jude Gallagher celebrates beating Regan Buckley at the IABA Irish National Elite Championships. Photos: Piaras Ó Mídheach

SPORTSFILE

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This year just 11 boxers are being funded directly by Sport Ireland

Enniskerry teenager Daina Moorehouse has all the credentials to be Ireland's newest female ring prodigy. The winner of two European underage titles, she was shortlisted for RTÉ's Young Sportsperson of the Year award in 2018.

She won the Irish light flyweight title on her elite debut last November and was also named as the female boxer of the championships.

The 18-year-old ought to be the poster girl of Irish amateur boxing ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. But like all but a handful of Irish boxers, she hasn't received a cent in direct funding from either the Irish Athletic Boxing Association or Sport Ireland.

Last December the diminutive Moorehouse won the Best Youth Boxer award at the women's-only Winter Box Cup tournament in Guildford. Her coach Paul O'Toole got chatting to one of the English coaches afterwards. He was astonished to learn that Daina was not being funded.

After returning home, O'Toole received a call from another UK coach with a specific query. Was Moorehouse eligible to box for the UK? Though the caller wasn't personally involved in the UK High Performance Unit, he was certain she would be looked after if she declared for England.

Moorehouse is eligible to fight for England through her grandmother. "Daina wasn't interested," says O'Toole. "Her goal is to represent Ireland at the Olympics in 2024."

Her case is a classic illustration of one of the major issues facing Ireland's most successful Olympic sport.

The establishment of a high performance unit in late 2002 rejuvenated boxing at elite level in this country. Three Olympic medals were secured at the Beijing Games in 2008; four at the London Games in 2012.

At the 2015 men's World Championships in Doha, Ireland finished fourth overall in the medals table, bettered only by Azerbaijan, Russia and Cuba. The championships were also Billy Walsh's swansong as Irish coach.

Since then, performances have dipped alarmingly. Ireland failed to win a boxing medal at the Rio Olympics the following year and sent weakened squads to the men's and women's World Championships last year. It was the first time since 2006 that they didn't bring home a medal.

The departure of Gary Keegan, the founder of the high performance unit in 2008, and the inexcusable loss of Walsh were catastrophic blows. Yet it is too simplistic to blame Ireland's decline solely on their absence.

After all, Ireland continues to punch above its weight internationally at underage level. Since the inaugural European schoolboy championship in Rome in 2003 - female boxing was incorporated in 2018 - Ireland has won 19 gold, 31 silver and 69 bronze medals.

And it's not just at this level that Ireland continues to excel. In 2018, Irish boxers won 37 medals - eight gold, 11 silver and 18 bronze - at a range of international championship events including the European under 22s, European Youths, European Schools, World Youths, European Junior and Olympic Youth. Last year the haul was 32: six gold, seven silver and 19 bronze.

Every sport is littered with case histories of successful underage athletes who fail to make the grade at senior level, but in boxing the drop-out rates are akin to a "haemorrhage," according to Andrew Duncan, president of the Leinster branch of the IABA and a member of the association's board of directors.

"Our underage boxers are as good as there are in the world but they just disappear out of the game because there is no pathway for them. Sport Ireland has no interest so long as there are boxers to fill the high performance set-up. But the sport is disintegrating - and that's the only way to describe it - around their ears but they don't seem to recognise it."

The Irish Sports Council, as Sport Ireland was then, introduced a carded funding system for Irish athletes in the wake of a damning review of the Sydney Olympics in 2000. They funded athletes across all sports under five different headings until 2012: junior, development, international, world championship and contracted.

In 2008, for example, 42 boxers received direct payments totalling €431,000, ranging from the top earner Kenneth Egan, who received €55,000, to €3,000 each for 23 junior boxers. Eric Donovan, then classified as an international boxer, received €12,000,

"In 2003, when I was 17 I won the Four Nations title and was put on international funding," he says. "I certainly wasn't living a life of luxury on the grant. Sometimes I would struggle to get up to Dublin to training." But the grant enabled Donovan - who became a father in 2005 - to stay involved in the sport.

This year just 11 boxers are being funded directly by Sport Ireland to the tune of €284,000. As is the case with all sports, the number of categories has been reduced to three: Podium, World Class and International.

The podium boxers - Kellie Harrington, Kurt Walker, Michaela Walsh and Aoife O'Rourke - each receive €40,000. Gráinne Walsh, Michael Nevin, Amy Broadhurst and Christina Desmond are classified as world class and receive €20,000 each, while under the international class Kieran Molloy and Kiril Afanasev receive €12,000.

Last year Sport Ireland also provided €770,000 to the IABA to fund its high performance programme as well as €475,000 in direct funding. The organisation had a deficit of €24,000 in 2019.

But the issue is that there is no individual funding available for even the most talented and promising underage fighters. This, people in boxing believe, sees the majority either quit the sport or turn professional because they cannot afford to train full-time.

Potential Olympians including the McKenna brothers, Arron and Stevie, Gary Cully, Lewis Crocker, John Joyce, Paddy O'Donovan, Jason Harty, Pearce O'Leary and Conor Wallace - the majority of whom won underage medals at European level - have all joined the paid ranks in the last three years.

The latest recruit to the paid ranks, Belfast lightweight James McGivern, who won a bronze medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, is due to make his professional debut in August. Others have quit.

Eric Donovan cites the case of Athy native Willie Donoghue, who won the light-flyweight gold medal at the 2013 AIBA World junior (under 16) championships in the Ukraine.

Previously the only other Irish boxer to win a gold medal at these championships was Joe Ward. He later won three European titles as well as two silver and one bronze medal at the elite World Championships before turning professional in 2019.

"We possibly lost an Olympic medal because of the way he was treated," says Donovan. "He was promised funding - he wasn't looking for much, maybe five thousand but he never received anything. He went sour on boxing and stopped going to the gym. He was a world champion. We had a parade for him through the streets of Athy. But we lost him to the sport.

"Now he's married with two young kids. Had he been a world champion in athletics, tennis, show jumping or golf the red carpet would have been rolled out for him."

Last year, Donovan coached Tyrone youngster Jude Gallagher to win an elite Irish title for the first time. "He would be a prime candidate for funding, though he is one of the fortunate ones as his dad owns a couple of businesses. Jude can work there but when he's training for a big championship he doesn't have to work. Not every young boxer has that luxury."

In the elite flyweight final, Gallagher - a bronze medallist at the World Youth championships - beat European Games bronze medallist and defending Irish champion Regan Buckley. The Bray fighter subsequently announced he was quitting because he couldn't afford to continue. Buckley told the Irish-Boxing.com website: "It was way too hard for me to keep on going training full time and not have an income. I was expected to be in the high performance training Tuesday to Friday each week and then weeks abroad at competitions and training camps. All of this without any funding whatsoever.

"My only source of income was €44 a week from the social welfare and for a 22-year-old man it was impossible to even attempt to live off that."

Andrew Duncan has compiled a list of talented male fighters who he says have either stopped boxing or who have drifted away, including Seán Conroy (World junior bronze medallist 2013), Martin Stokes (European junior silver medallist, 2016), Frankie Cleary (European junior silver medallist, 2016), Oliver McCarthy (European youth silver medallist 2016) and Jordan Myers (European youth bronze medallist 2017),

The situation is exacerbated by what has clearly been a long-standing dysfunctional relationship between the high performance unit, the board of directors and the Central Council of the IABA. There have been numerous spats between the high performance unit and the Central Council.

Duncan favours a scenario where Sport Ireland would take control of the unit as they already fund it, while the IABA would be left in charge of the other tiers of the sport.

"At the moment everybody is in limbo and nobody knows where they're going," says Duncan.

"There is no pathway for young boxers. We need a defined structure so that boxers know that if they reach certain targets when they're 15, 17, 19 years of age they will be rewarded. Such a structure doesn't exist at the moment."

Even on a practical level it is a challenge for young boxers to find their way to the high performance unit on the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown.

"These kids don't have a bean, they have nothing, it is a flipping ordeal for them to get there," says Duncan.

Once viewed as an archetypical working-class sport this is no longer the case, according to Eric Donovan. "It is a disadvantaged sport."

Until the Covid-19 lockdown Daina Moorehouse worked part-time in the kitchen of a hotel in Enniskerry.

"It's so wrong that she doesn't receive a penny of funding," suggests Paul O'Toole. "You should see the way she trains. She is up every morning at 6am doing work on the road and then down at the club every night."

She may make it to Paris but dozens will fail, not due to a lack of talent but a lack of funding.

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