Wednesday 22 January 2020

A putrid stench on Olympia as Conlan defeat ends Irish hopes

Michael Conlan exchanges blows with Vladimir Nikitin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Michael Conlan exchanges blows with Vladimir Nikitin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It ended in a stifling press marquee with the crash of a tossed water bottle and the shrill condemnation of a judging system that may slowly be becoming the boxing story of these Games.

"Olympic boxing is dead," declared Michael Conlan, before tossing a few libels our way for consumption.

His language was plain as you might expect of a man who would never again subject himself to the blazered scrutiny of strangers. Removing his vest in the ring, he'd looped around, raising the middle figure of both hands to those who had just declared him beaten by Russia's Vladimir Nikitin.

It was maybe the least eloquent work he had summoned on this Brazilian morning but, to the untrained eye at least, he could be forgiven an inelegant farewell.


Concern about the probity of Olympic judging had been raised before these Games began and, if that concern emboldened the odd opportunistic cry of something being amiss in recent days, the sound building last night was beginning to turn heads.

The Russian boxer celebrates. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The Russian boxer celebrates. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Memories of Olympic boxing's most infamous decision, the scandalous verdict given to local boxer Park Si-Hun over Roy Jones Jnr at Seoul in '88, were invoked on Monday as a Russian heavyweight was declared victor over a Kazakh who had all but handed him his teeth in a jar.

If the adjudication of Conlan's fight didn't quite sink to that kind of incongruous depth, it did look questionable.

True, the Belfast boxer lost previously to Nikitin at the 2013 World Championships, but that had been his debut outing as a bantamweight. Since then, he's grown into the division sufficiently to hold the World, European and Commonwealth crowns.

"I'm absolutely devastated," said Conlan, having declared the judges "cheating bast**ds" on live TV and the governing AIBA "corrupt". As he spoke to media, his father and coach John could not help himself but interject. "Shame on them, shame on them" he repeated twice.

Read more: 'Worst I've seen since Seoul shame'

Remarkably, all three judges had declared Nikitin winner of a first round in which Conlan looked largely in control. In fact, grumbles were audible in the auditorium as that score was conveyed to the public, a quick glance out towards where Paddy Barnes sat confirming for Conlan the bad news brewing.

Having then levelled the fight by dominating the second in a way that brooked no argument, the degeneration of the third into a clumsy toe-to-toe scrap left Conlan vulnerable.

"That was terrible," declared head coach Zaur Antia, the Georgian now cursed to a solemn homecoming, his team the first since Athens in '04 to return without a medal.

"He won first round very clean, but (Nikitin leading) three nil? How is this possible?" asked Antia. "The second round was close and Michael gets three nil. They kept the last round for the Russian, that's what they did. They need to change things because it's no good when they do not give the correct decision."

Antia, enraged by the split decision that ended Katie Taylor's Olympics on Monday, suggested that disquiet with the judges was broadening and there were rumours within the media centre last night of officials from Ireland, Britain, Canada and US perhaps formalising some form of protest.

None of that mattered a hill of beans to Conlan though, his future now almost certainly with brother Jamie in the professional ranks.


That said, the very concept of 'amateur boxing' has been essentially redundant for some time with the creation of the APB and WSB series of boxing in which men like Conlan are paid to box for international franchises.

"My Olympic dream was robbed from me today," he said.

Asked if he had arrived at Riocentro Six with any concern that it might, he was unequivocal. "No, not at all. I watched the heavyweight fight last night and, after what happened to Katie, (I thought) 'this can't happen to me'. For a whole nation to be watching with their whole press and media, they couldn't go and rob me could they? But, in fact, they did.

"We've seen the Russian's reaction after. He didn't believe he won, I didn't believe he won, the crowd didn't believe he won, I don't even think his corner believed he won. And he reacted like he had won an Olympic gold medal.

"Today I wouldn't even have celebrated. I was here for gold. My Olympic dream has been ruined. One thing's for sure, I'll not box in an AIBA competition again. Even if they offered me five million to box in the APB. . . Because I feel they are probably one of the most corrupt organisations in the world."

A mournful prayer for amateur boxing then?

"It's completely dead," he rasped. "You've seen some of the decisions, Olympic boxing is dead."

Standing stone-faced behind him, John Conlan's composure was now a trembling candle. This has been an Olympics from hell for the Irish coaches, but Conlan's sense of loss for his son had become the compelling energy.

"What do you lads think?" he asked the assembled journalists. "You're asking questions and drawing things out that will make you the headline story.

"Tell the truth, say what it is, you don't need us to put words in your mouths. You guys all went to university, we didn't. Yiz have all spent four or five years to become f***ing writers or whatever, well then do your job, tell the truth."

Read more: I'm glad I'm not boxing any more, it's all just a farce

His son agreed with a suggestion that other Irish boxers would now question the "worth" of chasing Olympic gold

"I'd say so," said Conlan. "Some of the boys should have got to the medal stages. I don't know what else to say. I'm absolutely devastated. I brought my family out, I paid their way. It's horrible, it's sad.

"People are questioning Irish boxing. Why not question the judges here? Katie Taylor didn't lose yesterday. Paddy Barnes probably could have got a decision, but he was bollixed making weight. Maybe Joe Ward should have got the two warnings, but the other guy should have got at least one."

The Irish camp, we were told, had been aware beforehand of rumblings about French and Russian boxers especially being adjudicated kindly. But they did not articulate them for fear they might contaminate Conlan's mind.

"You hear whispers that there's names already on the medals," said Eddie Bolger. "We had our doubts coming in there today, of course we didn't highlight it. We didn't speak about it in the dressing-room.

"But I've been to every major tournament in the world, APB, WSB, no bums on seats. Nobody goes to watch this because you can't fool the public all the time. It's an insult to anybody who is a boxing fan to try and tell them 'No, you're wrong, this guy won the fight.'

"So they won't come and it's very sad, sad for the Olympics and it's sad for the people who work so hard. It's happening too often."

As Michael Conlan's water bottle went ricocheting across the press marquee floor, that sadness seemed to be gathering a terminal feel.

What they said

Billy Walsh

"The judging has been atrocious. The last time I saw it as bad was in Seoul in 1988 when Roy Jones got robbed in the final.I saw Michael Conlan's first two rounds in the changing area and he completely out-boxed this guy. He out-fought him in the second round and out-boxed him in the first. And he didn't get it."

AIBA spokesman

"Afterwards, it's his personal judgement. All I can say is that AIBA is striving for a fair, level playing field. The idea is not to benefit one country towards another, we represent 200 national federations. These statements are groundless but he's free to have his opinion."

The Russian camp

"The Russians are constantly being accused of something. Let's deal with these things in a dignified way," said Igor Kazikov, head of the Russian delegation at the Games.

"There were judges sitting there, professionals who take responsibility for these things. Why is there this mistrust all the time?"

Eddie Bolger

"We've competed with the best in the world. We lost a few split decisions but we really can't control those decisions. I'm really proud of Michael Conlan. Katie yesterday, they've held themselves together better than I have."

Irish Independent

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