Friday 22 November 2019

Olympic aftermath shines light on an uneasy alliance

High-performance unit and IABA to stagger on together, writes John O'Brien

IT sometimes seems as if the officials who keep the wheels of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association greased and those who run its high-performance programme are forever destined to remain poles apart, forming a brittle alliance that, at any moment, looks as if it might crumble at the seams. There are many things the association does well, and boxing is flourishing under its guidance, but when it comes to public relations, its performance leaves much to be desired.

It's curious why this should be so. In Bernard O'Neill, the IABA has an excellent and hard-working press officer, but it is higher up on the chain where the issues begin. The success of Ireland's boxers on the highest stage doesn't just reflect well on the world-class programme that got them there, it shines a light on the amateurish and slipshod approach of some of those in power.

The contributions of Ireland coaches, Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia, have been taken for granted by the IABA for so long now that it was no surprise they were allowed to travel to London with uncertainty hanging over their futures, as if they had something to prove at the Olympics. It shouldn't have happened. Coaching contracts shouldn't have been a newspaper story on such a huge weekend for Irish boxing, but where does the blame lie for that?

Take last Wednesday too. At some point in the previous 48 hours an IABA official decided it hadn't been enough for the boxers to parade around their own towns and villages, at the Mansion House that morning and again at Farmleigh House that afternoon, they needed to be wheeled out in front of a National Stadium audience that night as well.

The idea wasn't the problem. After all, who deserved an audience with the boxers more than those who had watched and supported them through the years? The timing was appalling, though. Could they not have waited a couple of weeks or months even? Would it not have been a good idea to wait until the next home international when a full stadium and a raucous atmosphere would have been guaranteed? Did anyone stop to think?

As it was, a crowd of less than 100 showed up and the evening descended into farce when a reporter raised the subject of Walsh and Antia's contract situation, a totally inappropriate question in the circumstances. By that stage the weariness of those sitting at the top table was apparent, most of them pining to get home to make up for lost hours of sleep.

The email circulated advertising the event, hastily assembled by all appearances, is an interesting document. Regrettably, it manages to misspell several names, but more important is the strained emphasis placed on the history of the IABA, hinting at the frustration many officers feel when the high-performance people are lavished with praise and they get written out of the story.

"The huge success in London is largely due to the formation of a coaching strategy put in place in 1989 by the IABA," it says. And then a number of names are mentioned: Gerry Storey, Austin Carruth, Michael Hawkins, John Mahon, Brendan ó Conaire, Gary Keegan. No mention of Nicholas Cruz, however, the Cuban who sometimes ploughed a lonely furrow as national coach throughout the 1990s. A glaring omission.

In a way, though, the message serves a timely reminder. Maybe some of us are prone to get carried away with the sustained excellence of the high-performance unit and forget that there is a contributing chain which extends all the way down to the clubs and volunteers. It's no harm to be reminded of that now and again, even if is done in such a cack-handed manner.

We shouldn't really fear for the future of amateur boxing here. Katie Taylor may well decide to go the professional route -- what is left for her to achieve in the amateur ranks? -- but it's unlikely that many of her male colleagues will follow. They already have the World Series of Boxing as an added outlet and the advent of the AIBA's professional boxing programme will add to their earning power without compromising their Olympic dreams. There are plenty of enticements to stay.

And sometime over the next two or three weeks IABA officials will sit down with Walsh and Antia, recognise their value and secure their services for another four years. The uneasy alliance will continue. Things will proceed just fine, although deep down we wish there could be another way.

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