Friday 24 January 2020

Vincent Hogan: Michael O'Reilly farce shows Olympic bosses are on another planet

Zaur Antia is owed an apology. He was betrayed in the chain of communication that ended with somebody in authority ringing a journalist instead of updating the man in charge. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Zaur Antia is owed an apology. He was betrayed in the chain of communication that ended with somebody in authority ringing a journalist instead of updating the man in charge. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The 'City of God' threw up pictures yesterday more perfect than anything Monet ever painted. But when it's time to encounter Peter and the archangels, most sports journalists will document attendance at multiple Olympiads as penance already banked in service to any application for forgiveness.

This is the most misunderstood gig we do. Sure, you probably looked at those out-stretched arms on Corcovado under a perfect cornflower sky and reckoned there could be no more blessed place to be than Rio. But sometimes being a journalist at the games can feel like trying to access news on a scratchy nine-inch black and white TV from somewhere north of Jupiter.

Information comes in great, cascades of paperwork it is true - timetables, results, athlete profiles. But to get to stuff we need to know, like - say - anything to do with Michael O'Reilly this past few days, it felt like trying to secret an escape-plan out of Rikers Island.

Yesterday, confirmation finally came that the Portlaoise middleweight has lodged an appeal against his doping violation, one that will be heard (via conference call) by a three-member panel drawn from the Irish Sport Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel. The process apparently could take "a number of days".

Read More: O'Reilly facing magnified consequences for a mistake at the elite level

Which is a pity. Because Thursday on Avenida das Americas was one of those peculiarly Irish Olympic shambles that leaves you almost lamenting the absence of a medal category here for administrative chaos.

And a man called Zaur Antia is owed a public apology by those responsible.

This is the Georgian's first Olympics as head coach to our boxers, yet he was hopelessly betrayed in the chain of communication that ended with somebody in authority ringing a journalist instead of updating the man in charge of our best medal hopes.

The scene that, thus, unfolded brought scant credit on those involved, Antia left to wrestle with a frenzied media seeking clarity on questions he could not answer. But then the first casualty of a bad news story involving Ireland at the Olympics is almost always candour.

And, for two days, there was nothing here.

O'Reilly was separated from the rest of the boxing team on Friday but, 36 hours after the story first breaking, word was that Sport Ireland still had absolutely no clarity on the Clonmel-born middleweight's intentions.

Read More: Fighting Irish? We're more like the cheating Irish

This spoke of a startling absence of coherent crisis management. Would it have happened if Billy Walsh was still running boxing's High Performance programme? Hard to imagine it. Leading a programme requires more than coaching acumen and the day the IABA let Walsh leave for Colorado was the day they took an enormous gamble with the culture nurtured so carefully from the outset of the boxing programme in 2002 under Gary Keegan.

Walsh's management of that programme from 2008 to last October was holistic, all-consuming.

It isn't to be critical of Antia, one of the world's most technically gifted coaches, to suggest that his talents are narrower and more fight-specific than those of the man he has, effectively, been asked to replace here.

But, in the absence of any insights forthcoming from either the IABA or OCI in recent days, Antia - the man in charge - must have felt hopelessly isolated.

His new role is, still, tagged 'interim' by his employers and it is a moot point (as most things are with the IABA) if they see him as a long-term possibility as High Performance Director (should they ever actually formalise the appointment of one). The boxers, palpably, adore Antia. To a man, they understand the difference his technical input has reaped in their international performances.

Read More: O'Reilly to insist he's clean via Skype link

Paddy Barnes has described him as "a tactical genius", but there is more than boxing tactics being asked of the Georgian now and Thursday's shambolic events in downtown Rio suggest the support structures he should be able to presume upon are not there to protect him.

With Steven Donnelly and David Oliver Joyce due in the Olympic ring today, journalists will finally get to speak (hopefully) to Antia on what has been a wretched opening chapter to this Olympiad for his team. In the information void, O'Reilly's case will - sadly - dominate all dialogue in the mixed zone.

How the boxer has been coping, we have no way of knowing, albeit his tweet on Thursday night (subsequently deleted) suggested a quite remarkable optimist or someone irredeemably in denial. But these days must be proving quite a trial for his family given the irrationally vast focus on all things Olympia just now and the sense of ordinary lives becoming freighted with extraordinary attention.

The world will move on in time and most of the young men and women now playing to a world audience will return to days of unexceptional circumstance.

Michael O'Reilly arrived here with the talent to get a podium place and - maybe - he will confound us all by stepping into the Olympic ring, as prohesised in that tweet, next Friday with reputation intact. But he looks to be fighting a tough battle to save his Olympics and yesterday's relentless traffic of flippant tweets from team-mates in the Olympic village suggests that that fight will be a solitary one.

And for those of us peering in over the village wall, Corcovado might as well be a suburb of the moon.

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