Saturday 16 December 2017

Tommy Conlon: Michael O'Reilly facing magnified consequences for a mistake at the elite level

It is believed however that the substance was a performance-enhancing drug. He will therefore be coming home to a very public ordeal. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
It is believed however that the substance was a performance-enhancing drug. He will therefore be coming home to a very public ordeal. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Recreational or performance-enhancing? Either way, Michael O'Reilly was coming home stripped bare of his Olympic dream.

But if the banned substance found in his system was a recreational narcotic, a lot of concerned people would have breathed a long sigh of relief.

He'd have come home to a stern ticking off - but within a wider climate of forgiveness and support.

It is believed however that the substance was a performance-enhancing drug. He will therefore be coming home to a very public ordeal.

At time of writing, the Clonmel 23-year-old was still in Brazil. A long way from family and friends, he was undoubtedly feeling lonely and afraid as his Irish uniform was swapped for a pariah's shroud.

On Thursday morning local time his world was turned upside down when news came through that he'd tested positive.

The consequences will be profound, possibly life-altering. In time he will discover how far these consequences will reach.

Everything that happened up until August 4, 2016, was his before; everything now and for the next several years will be his after. The shocks will be seismic and recurring. He will be banned from his sport; he will lose his livelihood as a full-time, state-funded athlete; he will lose his community of fellow boxers; his reputation will be tarnished.

He may feel the need to stay indoors, even when he just wants to live the ordinary civilian's life of shopping, socialising or the school run with his young children. He will see how much distress he has brought on his own family and it will accentuate his pain.

If only he had some clue of the consequences before he made this defining mistake in his young life. In truth, there are multitudes of people his age who make very poor decisions. Usually the damage is mopped up eventually and they move onto more solid ground.

But an Olympic medal is one of life's great prizes, and therefore comes at a high price for those trying to chase it. It is a hard road and a serious undertaking. It does not come cheap and mistakes are expensive. If the achievement is glorified and magnified beyond proportion, the fall-out for this kind of failure is magnified and blown out of proportion too. It is an immoderate goal with immoderate consequences for those who don't reach it for whatever reason - bad luck, an ill-timed injury or a doping violation.

Michael O'Reilly knew the rules; at his level they all know the rules. You are solely responsible for what you put into your body. It is an iron law. And somehow some way, innocently or otherwise, he breached this fundamental term of engagement. The circumstances don't matter to the bottom line: he is guilty of taking a banned substance.

There may be some mitigation to be found in the nature of this substance. The doping spectrum runs from light grey to darkest black; from one individual's cough medicine to a state-sponsored regime of chemicals and corruption. If O'Reilly is deemed to be at the lighter end of the spectrum, then he will get the chance to open a new chapter somewhere down the line.

It must be said however that there does not appear to be a huge amount of sympathy for him, at the moment, among his peers. He has antagonised some of them in the past. He has been in various scrapes with the boxing authorities. And the boxers' widely-respected status is something they cherish. Their high performance unit has one of the most prestigious legacies in all of Irish sport. Its members past and present are likely to resent anyone who might compromise that esteem.

The former Olympian Darren O'Neill emphasised this point in a piece he wrote for the RTE Sport website on Friday. "Since (its) beginning, the reputation of the team was something that was always spoken about: never tarnish the reputation by anything you do or say, in your performance inside the ring or your behaviour out of it."

Up until the last few days, any reputational damage visited on Irish boxing was more likely to be wrought by some of those entrusted with governing the sport. And inevitably, the IABA has been found wanting since the controversy erupted. In fact it has barely been found at all. The team manager Joe Hennigan is in Rio with the squad.

On Thursday the head coach Zaur Antia and his assistants were ambushed by the news as a large Irish media contingent sought information and statements. Understandably enough, they did a runner; it wasn't their job to front up to the media.

Inevitably too, more than a few people are wondering if this story would've transpired at all if Billy Walsh was still at the helm. The high performance boxers were very fond of Walsh; occasionally they felt the fear when he was around too. He cracked the whip, they toed the line.

Antia and the rest of the team will now move on without O'Reilly. It has been a cold house in a hot country for the lad since he was exposed. He has been quarantined away from his mates, he was barred from the opening ceremony, he has become an outsider in this most tight-knit of teams.

It's a tough station for him but they won't shed too many tears. They have a job to do; they want to come home with medals. He is coming home early, and alone.

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