Thursday 23 November 2017

Outrage masks an inconvenient truth

Michael Conlan shows his opinion of the judges' decision following his controversial Olympic bantamweight quarter-final defeat to Vladimir Nikitin of Russia Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Michael Conlan shows his opinion of the judges' decision following his controversial Olympic bantamweight quarter-final defeat to Vladimir Nikitin of Russia Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

The awful decision which denied Michael Conlan victory in his Olympic bantamweight quarter-final against Vladimir Nikitin may have been a bit of a bummer for the Belfast boxer but it could be a godsend for the Irish Athletic Boxing Association.

Because, following Conlan's defeat, it's clear that a counter-narrative is being crafted, one which uses one dodgy decision to claim that Irish boxing's poor performances at the Games are the result not of organisational inadequacies but of some vast sinister plot. On this reading it is the world body, the AIBA, rather than the IABA which has a case to answer.

So appealing is this story to the amateur boxing fraternity that not one but two conspiracy theories are being floated to excuse Irish underachievement. First into the ring was coach Eddie Bolger, who declared, referring to Michael O'Reilly's doping offence, "We kind of embarrassed AIBA at the start and now we're being punished for it." In fact Bolger thinks that anyone who thinks Ireland did badly at these Olympics is completely wrong: "Our performances in the ring have been second to none. We've competed with the best in the world. This has been a great Olympics within the camp."

Michael Conlan himself also pushed the theory that Ireland were the victims of a conspiracy but for an entirely different reason. "Before the Games we had a bad feeling that with an ex-Irish referee, who was part of the AIBA, coming out and outing them, they were going to come down hard on us for him coming out and having his say." This was actually Conlan's second conspiracy theory in a few days, his first having ascribed his defeat to bribery of the judges by Russia.

So which will it be? The AIBA picking on Ireland because one of our boxers was dishonest or the AIBA picking on Ireland because one of our referees was too honest? Usually when you have a plethora of conspiracy theories it's because the truth is too hard for their proponents to cope with. So it is in this case.

In portraying an Irish boxing team who've been "second to none" and have produced a string of great performances against world class opposition only to be denied by crooked officials, Eddie Bolger is talking nonsense. Paddy Barnes, for one, has admitted that he was only a shadow of himself at the Games. Katie Taylor too was unhappy with her form. And far from being undone by 'the best in the world', Irish fighters lost out to some pretty mediocre opposition.

Barnes lost to a 20-year-old Spaniard who was eliminated in the next round. Taylor was beaten by a 35-year-old Finnish fighter who also lost her next bout. Joe Ward was defeated by an Ecuadorean fighter who was knocked out in his next fight.

Conlan's claim doesn't hold much more water. No-one disputes the defeats of Brendan Irvine, Steven Donnelly and David Oliver Joyce, who were all well beaten by much better opponents. Barnes himself admitted after his fight that he'd be running on empty throughout and would have lost his next fight even if he'd got the decision against Samuel Carmona Heredia. Katie Taylor has been losing all year and like Barnes looked well below her best. In her case, the break with her father and coach Pete appears to have played a significant role in this.

Which leaves Ward, who was unlucky against Carlos Mina but has suffered shock defeats against negative opponents at international level before. And Conlan, who was definitely blackguarded. But trying to use that one decision to infer a blanket conspiracy against the Irish team as a whole is just nonsense.

You can, however, see the attractions of this line of argument for the IABA and those associated with it. There is, after all, a much simpler explanation as to why Ireland did so badly at these Olympics. When Billy Walsh was finally forced to take a job elsewhere, plenty of pundits warned that his departure would have an adverse effect on the boxers at the Olympics. Now that this has happened, it's hardly surprising to see a scramble for other explanations which, though outlandish, do have the virtue of providing comfort and cover.

There are questions which the IABA will have to face after the games. Why was Billy Walsh persistently disrespected and harried until he felt he had no option but to leave his job as head coach? Why was Michael O'Reilly allowed to persistently miss training sessions in the run-up to the Olympics? Why was nothing done to address the weight problems which reduced Paddy Barnes from gold medal favourite to hapless also-ran? These are painful questions and boxing officials will hardly fancy having to answer them, as seems likely, in front of a Dail Committee.

In the circumstances, conspiracy theories could provide a kind of get out of jail free card. Put Michael Conlan up there talking about Vladimir Putin and perhaps public, pundits and politicians will agree that the IABA have no case to answer at all. What could they do with the sinister forces arrayed against them? Just let them off to get on with the serious business of making an equally big mess of Tokyo 2020.

It won't wash. There are undeniably problems with corruption in the AIBA but they didn't arise overnight. The IABA and its apologists, suddenly so keen to portray amateur boxing as so beyond redemption that, as Conlan has suggested, it doesn't belong in the Olympics at all, were perfectly satisfied with it when we were winning medals at the world championships a few months back.

Despite Eddie Bolger's claim that the medallists at this Olympics had been decided beforehand, the fact is that there have been no odd patterns of success in the boxing competition. The same countries who usually do well at major championships are doing well at this one. Ireland is the one exception. So you can understand the psychological need to explain this unexpected eclipse.

There are other reasons why it's important for Irish amateur boxing to create a counter-narrative which takes the heat off the sport. When this year's awards under the Irish Sports Council's High Performance Scheme were announced in June, boxing received more money than any other sport. Its ¤368,000 dwarfed the ¤220,000 made available to athletics, the ¤132,000 given to sailing, the ¤118,00 received by rowing. The money for boxing was more than the combined total for our Paralympians, some of whom have won gold at their Games in the past. How galling must it be for the many top-class sportspeople denied Podium Funding to hear about Michael O'Reilly's allegedly cavalier attitude to training?

Boxing's funding was justified by reference to its success at the last two Olympics. So it's in the interest of the IABA and its fighters to push the idea that the 2016 Games did not represent a massive drop in performance levels at all. There's also the fact that when the IABA were being taken to task by the Sports Council and others over their treatment of Billy Walsh, among other governance issues, their response was to point to the medals and observe that the way they did things seemed to be working out fine.

I had a certain sympathy for this line of argument at the time but it's now become clear that the IABA have been punished not for Michael O'Reilly's doping or the integrity of an Irish referee but for their carelessness in letting the most important man in the boxing programme slip through their fingers.

In any case it's not just Irish boxers who've suffered at the hands of the judges at this Games. An even worse decision than the one which denied Conlan was the one which saw Russia's Evgeny Tishchenko given the nod in a heavyweight final when he'd been clearly outclassed by Vasiliy Levit of Kazakhstan.

Levit didn't give the judges the fingers, call the AIBA a bunch of cheating bastards, tweet Vladimir Putin to ask how much he'd paid the judges - one of whom happened to be Irish by the way - or suggest that because he'd been the victim of a poor decision boxing was rotten from top to bottom. Instead when supporters started to boo Tischenko at the medal ceremony he put his finger to his lips so they'd stop. Levit's comment about the verdict? "I felt that I was winning the bout but if the judges and referee gave that decision then they have good grounds to do so."

It's a pretty noble attitude to take and the difference between Levit's reaction and Conlan's may stem not so much from the difference between their individual characters as from that between the cultures they come from.

In sport, as in much else, we do like to think of ourselves as the Most Oppressed People Ever.

The easiest thing to do after something like the Conlan defeat is to pull on the green jersey and whinge for Ireland. But it's precisely at times like this that we should remember the words of the American writer Susan Sontag following 9/11, "Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together."

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