Saturday 17 March 2018

Vincent Hogan: How the chaos and confusion unfolded in the Ireland camp in Rio

Little sign of administrative assistance as Antia is left to firefight ugly breaking news

Michael O’Reilly on the podium in Doha after winning bronze at the AIBA World Boxing Championships last year. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

Vincent Hogan in Rio

In the rising heat on Avenida das Americas, a tawdry din was erupting to sting the ears of three good men.

Ireland's Olympic boxing coaches sat on a bus outside Teatro Bradesco, staring back wordlessly at a swarm of media now bludgeoning them with questions.

Zaur Antia, Eddie Bolger and John Conlan could not have looked less comfortable had they been in leg chains and striped prison garments, Antia meeting requests to disembark with a weary shrug and upturned palms.

They deserved better than this.

O’Reilly with the gold medal he won at the 2015 European Games. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
O’Reilly with the gold medal he won at the 2015 European Games. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The first news of Michael O'Reilly's alleged doping violation had come their way inside the opulent theatre, whispered in Bolger's ear by a journalist.

He looked startled, tilting quickly into an intense exchange with his colleagues before all three redirected rather wooden gazes towards the stage.

They'd left the Olympic Village yesterday morning for a boxing draw, but found themselves tossed towards an inquisition rack.

Team Ireland boxers, from left, Paddy Barnes, David Oliver Joyce, Michael Conlan, Michael O’Reilly, Joe Ward, Stephen Donnelly and Brendan Irvine prior to their departure for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran

The earliest casualty of every Irish Olympic scandal tends to be order and when the O'Reilly story broke yesterday, not a single Irish administrator was on hand to either advise Antia and his staff on the storm now brewing or brief media. Did nobody know?

When the draw ended, the coaches immersed themselves in a swell of international contemporaries spilling out into the theatre lobby, Antia chatting sombrely for a time with his old colleague Billy Walsh.

And, somehow, they then evaded media to be the first three coaches onto the bus outside, engine idling for a return to village life.

As they sat, seemingly making calls to home for even the narrowest beams of clarity, Paddy Barnes tweeted a request to the journalist who had broken the story to name names.

"Who is it?" he asked. "You know so let us boxers know."

That was the tenor of business in central Rio then. An Irish doping story left, initially, to survive on murmur, so much so that all seven of Ireland's male boxers found themselves temporarily under the shadow of suspicion.

Who could blame Barnes in such circumstances, rumour and innuendo spreading around the boxing camp like an oil-slick.

From O'Reilly, there was no immediate evidence of whether or not he plans to appeal inevitable sanction and seek the opening of a 'B' sample.

His provisional suspension means he is not allowed even train with colleagues in Rio and will not now attend tonight's Opening Ceremony in the Maracana. But if natural chutzpah is a guide, we can surely take it that this story has, at least, another 48 more hours to run.

Remarkably, the world around him in noisy meltdown, he tweeted last night (7.20pm Irish-time) "Box on the 12th in the last 16 against the winner of Mexico and Iraq....."

Such cavalier use of Twitter from the Irish camp did not speak well of those in charge.

On a day when the draw ought to have been centre stage, smoke seemed to be rising from an Irish camp in which all eight boxers arrived here with genuine medal potential. It is inconceivable that such flippancy on social media would have been tolerated during Walsh's time as Head Coach and de facto (though never formalised in salary or name) High Performance Director.

Antia is currently operating in both of those roles on an interim basis.

Twenty-three-year-old O'Reilly is a talented boxer for whom there have been authentic medal hopes at these Games. European Games champion and World Championship bronze medallist, he is seeded at number three in the middleweight division, a status granting him a first-round bye yesterday.

I understand that his coach, IABA president Pat Ryan, was due to fly to Rio on Sunday.

Yet, his relationship with the governing body has not always been a comfortable one and in 2011 he successfully challenged a decision to drop him from a European Youths Championship team in the High Court. He subsequently won silver at those Championships in CityWest.

On that occasion, O'Reilly was said to have left a training camp to get damage to his car repaired after he allowed a younger boxer drive it in a car park. He secured two injunctions against the IABA, preventing their Central Council from confirming the decision to drop him.

He was in trouble again last April when one of two boxers sent home from a European Olympic qualifier in Samsun, Turkey for indiscipline, an incident that - reputedly - also led to a €5,000 fine.

O'Reilly was the last of Ireland's eight boxers to qualify for Rio, securing his place at the final qualifier in Baku last June by claiming gold. He'd been controversially denied qualification at last year's World Championships when beaten in a box-off by veteran Egyptian, Hosam Abdin, despite landing a reputed 36 punches to his opponent's 22.

Although this, clearly, is not the first Irish Olympic drug story, O'Reilly - if found guilty - would become the first Irish Olympian ordered home.

Both the IABA and OCI issued statements last night, confirming the story of an alleged doping violation in the Irish camp, but choosing not to name the boxer. If he chooses to appeal and have his 'B' sample tested, O'Reilly should know his fate within the next 48 hours.

There was no categorical information last night regarding the nature of the alleged violation and whether or not the substance deemed to be in violation of the WADA code was of performance-enhancing or recreational nature. Yet, for now, the story must represent a demoralising blow to Antia as he attempts to guide Ireland's best medal hopes into competition in this, his first Olympics as head coach.

Quite how his conversation with Walsh - now in charge of the US team - unspooled in the Teatro Bradesco yesterday only they will know.

But it seems fair to assume that the absence of helpful Irish administrative faces around them will have been noted.

And Walsh, most assuredly, will not have been feeling homesick.


  • Michael O’Reilly is now provisionally suspended from competition and can take no part in no sports activity including training.
  • He has three choices: he can (1) decide to accept a sanction for a doping violation (2) request that a B-sample be tested (3) appeal the provisional suspicion.
  • There was no indication from the boxer or the IABA last night as to what course of action he proposes to take.
  • In the event of him asking for the B-sample to be retested the results are likely to be available within 48 hours. In the event of the result remains unchanged then O’Reilly almost certainly faces a ban.
  • The severity of the ban will depend on whether the substance which showed up in the test is a performance enhancing drug – alternatively it could be a recreational drug.
  • The reality is that O’Reilly’s chances of making his Olympic debut as scheduled on August 12 are hanging by a thread.

Irish Independent

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