It's like Saipan all over again
Since the Beijing Olympics Irish amateur boxing has been the great good news story of sport in this country. An extraordinary run of success at international level, culminating in three European gold medals over the past two years, has made our boxers the jewel in the national sporting crown. They are the sole bearers of our medal hopes for London 2012.
Yet it looks as though those hopes might be dashed in their infancy. Not by opposing countries or outside forces but by the Irish Amateur Boxing Association itself whose plan to make fighters participate in box-offs for a place in the World Championships have left the sport on the brink of disaster.
The IABA had stated that they "will be recommending that the winners from this week's Open Unseeded Elite Championships will be the team for the 2011 IABA Championships" and it appears that the winners of the final box-offs due to take place yesterday will be put forward for selection.
The main problem with this is that Ireland's five leading boxers, reigning European champions Joe Ward and Ray Moylette, 2010 European champ Paddy Barnes, 2010 European silver medallist Darren O'Neill and 2009 world silver medallist John Joe Nevin, have all opted out of the box-offs. So if the IABA go ahead with their initial plan Ireland will be sending a ludicrously weakened team to Baku for the championships.
The absent quintet are all said to be suffering from injuries. Be that as it may, their absence is a resounding thumbs down to the box-off concept. It had been expected that the winners of February's national championships would represent Ireland in the worlds, thus giving them ample time to prepare for a competition which is also one of the two qualifying tournaments for the London Olympics. Making the quarter-finals in Baku will earn boxers a place in London.
Instead we're left with a situation where, as head coach Billy Walsh has pointed out, he still doesn't know what team he's bringing to the World Championships even though they are just a few weeks away. The IABA justified its stance on Friday, claiming that the box-offs "ensure that European champions, national champions and international medallists can be assessed prior to selection, and that it is fair that all are afforded this opportunity."
Yet what were the national championships but a series of box-offs? And where is the sense in making Barnes, Nevin and O'Neill, who have been completely dominant at local level for the past few years, prove themselves yet again? O'Neill's father and coach Ollie described the decision as "unbelievable" last week, pointing out that his son hasn't lost to an Irish opponent for three years but is struggling with a hand injury at the moment. "This is causing untold distress," he said, "a man in the middle of a recovery from a hand injury and he's told that if he doesn't go in these box-offs, he's gone. I'm totally bewildered."
Bewildering is the word for it. Are Ward and Moylette not entitled to some credit for winning their European titles rather than being put at risk of missing out on the worlds because of an off-day at a meaningless local competition? Especially since, as European champions, they will both be seeded at the World Championships, something which won't apply to any Irish boxer who might take their place. Ward has already been vocal in his criticism of the box-offs, saying in the aftermath of his European triumph, "I should be able to focus my mind on the World Championships now. Instead, I'm wondering about box-offs and the like. It's not ideal."
The IABA's statement seemed to indicate that they might be leaving themselves some room for
manouevre, saying that the boxing council "will select the team following the outcome of the Open Elite competition, and assessing other relevant performances and factors." Yet there is something slightly ominous about the following sentence which observes, "There will of course be a further opportunity for Ireland's boxers to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games via the AIBA Olympic qualifying tournament."
You'd hope that's not intended to console the likes of Darren O'Neill because it provides very cold comfort indeed. Qualifying for the Olympics can be a tough process. Last time out eventual medal winners Kenneth Egan and Darren Sutherland had to go to the very last qualifying tournament before clinching their places. The IABA should be ensuring that our finest boxers get as many chances to qualify as possible. As John Joe Nevin found out in this year's European Championships, your very best efforts can count for nothing in the face of questionable scoring. There's also the possibility that Irish boxers on a weakened team might qualify by making the last eight in Baku and close off the chances of better fighters at the same weight.
It now looks as though the idea of this final set of box-offs was a disastrous miscalculation, one which some of our leading fighters regarded as a slap in the face. Following the box-offs it looks as though the Boxing Council of the IABA will put forward their team for the World Championships while Billy Walsh will also make his recommendations. Chances are that those will be two very different lists and it's the IABA which will have the final say. Time is of the essence as Walsh is due to depart with the World Championship team to a training camp in Italy. That he doesn't yet know who'll be on the plane with him is frankly unacceptable.
The current impasse is also unfair to the boxers competing in the box-offs who've been led to believe that a win on Saturday will earn them a ticket to Baku and a shot at Olympic qualification. But can they really be sure that's going to happen? Are we really going to travel to the worlds without Ward, without Nevin, without Moylette and O'Neill and Barnes? The IABA has deservedly basked in the glory which has come the way of amateur boxing since Beijing. Yet it now runs the risk of reducing our London medal dreams to rubble. It still has time to extricate itself from the current mess but for the moment it appears to have done something which no boxer ever wants to do, got itself backed into a corner.
Perhaps it's time for Minister for Sport Leo Varadkar to get in the ring and knock some sense into the IABA. Because this is the biggest Irish sporting screw-up since Saipan. And if the team travels to the World Championships with some of our finest boxers left behind, heads should roll.
The IABA is a great organisation which has done fantastic work promoting the sport of boxing. But right now it's landing a knockout punch on itself.
Sunday Indo Sport