Fighting to avoid same old failures
There are real fears in Irish amateur boxing that the legacy of the London Olympics is being squandered, writes John O'Brien
Last Wednesday, a year to the day since the Irish boxing team fetched up at the Olympic Village in east London, Pete Taylor left the high-performance training camp in Waterford and drove north to meet the boxing promoter, Brian Peters. The subject at hand was the familiar one of his daughter's immediate future. The need to keep Katie ticking over in the ring. The imperative to maintain and enhance her public profile.
So they talked about October and the possibility of staging more shows at the Grand Canal Theatre, attracting the likes of Queen Underwood and Natasha Jonas as opponents, fights that would virtually promote themselves and lure paying customers ringside in their droves. The boxers would earn a few quid. The sport would receive a much-needed shot in the arm in terms of publicity. Everybody wins all round.
And yet, being Irish boxing, none of this can come without caveats. Pete won't deny that Katie has done well since her Olympic triumph. She has attracted sponsors and made money. She has the blessing of a €40,000 Sports Council grant to help smooth the path to Rio 2016. "But it's not as much as it could be," he argues. "She's the most marketable female athlete in Irish sport right now. It should be more."
These aren't sentiments borne of greed or hopeless vanity. In the year since she became the overwhelming Irish story of the Olympic Games, Taylor's visibility as a fighter is almost solely due to her connection to Peters. The only time she has fought under the banner of her own association was a hastily arranged mismatch against a Polish girl at the National Senior Championships in February described by Pete as "a mess". Their frustration is clearly evident.
Pete saw statistics on the runaway success of the sold-out Dublin shows headlined by Katie in February and March which showed that 70 per cent of those who bought tickets were attending their first boxing shows. Ultimately, Irish amateur boxing was the winner but you wonder if some boxing officials remained blind to it.
"Everybody thinks Brian Peters is making a killing," Taylor says. "But Brian is the most transparent person I've met [in boxing]. They should've been patting Bray Boxing Club on the back and saying well done, getting a professional promoter in to run the shows was very forward-thinking. If they'd done that for the All-Irelands, engaged with Brian Peters, maybe they wouldn't have been such a disaster."
A year has passed now and, even by its own modest standards, Irish boxing's efforts to cash in on a glorious summer is a grim catalogue of shame and missed opportunity. The cringe-worthy "homecoming" at the National Stadium last August. The abandonment of CityWest as the venue for the National Championships in February. The damp squib that was the internationals against France in March. The cancellation of the European Championships due to be staged in Dublin this October.
Despite his daughter's success, Taylor still finds himself asking old questions that seldom turn up satisfying answers. In London, he watched Irish boxing almost single-handedly rescue Ireland's Olympic Games from disaster, saw thousands of Irish supporters flock to the ExCeL Arena each day and then, when it was over, the sport, without as much as a raised glove, simply retreated to the margins and disappeared from public view. Madness.
When Katie defended her European Union title in Hungary earlier this month, Pete had naively convinced himself to think RTE might show an interest. He thought the prospect of a rematch against Jonas – voted the best fight, male or female, of the Olympics – would be enough to entice the national station into providing some sort of coverage, even if limited. That there would be some surviving sense of loyalty there. Wrong as things turned out.
"They all jumped on the bandwagon when it was the Olympic Games and she was the story," he says. "And she got great coverage and I applauded them for that. But you can't just give people coverage every four years and expect them to be kosher with that. I think everybody wants to see the Olympic boxers. They had one million viewers for Katie last year. And surely they're paying the licence fee and Irish consumers want to see their sports stars on television."
Taylor can clearly see, though, that the roots of the problem start deep within the IABA itself rather than in RTE. When Paddy Barnes boxed on Peters' Road to Rio card, he competed in front of a packed house, got paid and felt like an Olympic athlete. When he boxed against France, he fought in front of 100 people, had to fight his own association to get paid and felt like a second-class citizen.
Taylor can't conceive of any other country treating its most successful athletes in such a cavalier manner. He sees Kenneth Egan bowing out after 20 years given to boxing, the IABA not bending over backwards to find him a role within the sport. "Is that what happens when you sacrifice 17, 18 years for a sport? You have no trade, no job within the Association. What do you do when you're finished? Go on the dole? It's disgraceful."
For Darren O'Neill, the past 12 months have been about putting his life back together again. For O'Neill, London represented the culmination of a lifetime's dream and to be selected as captain of the boxing team enhanced the honour. And although he was gutted to lose his last-16 bout against the tough German, Stefan Hartel, O'Neill wasn't to know then that the hardest punch would not land until he was back home in Ireland.
Almost uniquely among the Irish team, O'Neill had a job outside boxing, as a teacher in Donaghmede, and was glad that when the buzz of the Games had faded, he would have something to relieve the post-Olympic blues. But that notion proved horribly premature. Ultimately, there was no job to return to. Then injury struck and he lost his national title. No shot at redemption at the European Championships and no prospect of making the team for the World Championships in October. Essentially, his year was a beaten docket.
It will be pointed out, of course, that Egan and O'Neill aren't the only athletes facing the prospect of life on the dole and the idea of sports stars enjoying the privilege of guaranteed employment in recessionary times is questionable anyway. Yet, this misses the point that successful athletes have an added value to their country that should, in some way, be exploited and maximised. They should especially not be failed by their own sport.
O'Neill is sanguine about his own situation. After accepting the rejection of his school, and three more job applications, he started sending letters to the Department of Education outlining imaginative sporting projects for kids that would do good and not cost an arm and a leg to administer. None of his letters were ever acknowledged. Now he is actively seeking employment away from the education sector.
That's not the IABA's fault, of course, but the feeling persists that the Association should be out there fighting for its athletes, boosting their profiles whenever it can. Yet what should we expect? Currently, the IABA has no dedicated commercial manager nor a full-time press officer and it appears chronically ill-prepared to face the changes that are washing over the sport internationally. "The Association is a limited company now," says Taylor. "It's time it started acting like one."
Not that it has been all bad news since London. The high-performance unit continues to trundle along at high speed, sufficiently inured from the chaos that prevails elsewhere in Irish boxing.
The 15 medals brought home from the EU Women's Championships hinted at the phenomenal rise in female boxing, thanks mostly to Katie Taylor. Talk to club coaches around the country and they tell stories of numbers increasing across the board and of a generous capital fund to draw from to buy equipment and upgrade facilities to cater for them.
Yet there is fear too that such positive stories are nothing more than a papering over of deep existing cracks. There is a widespread belief that the current crop of under-age boxers aren't of the quality that was regularly filtering through over the past 10 years or so, when the likes of Joe Ward and Ryan Burnett were winning gold medals at youth level. And if, as many believe, we are currently witnessing a golden generation of Irish amateur boxers, it makes the Association's failure to promote and market them properly all the more perplexing and unforgivable.
The problem is, though, that it is tolerated and, because it is tolerated, it is allowed to continue. More than 20 years have passed now since Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough returned from Barcelona with gold and silver medals to their name. Within two years, though, both had turned their backs on the amateur game and the legacy of those Games was squandered. Instead of Irish boxing using the success to grow and prosper, the sport spiralled into rapid decline.
And, of course, those who were responsible for this said it was a great shame, that lessons would be learned and it would never be allowed to happen again. Well, turns out they were wrong about that.