By Michael O’Neill
Boxing was the ‘big loser’ when Sport Ireland announced this week its funding for the next Olympic cycle up to and including Tokyo 2020 and though there are many commenting that the review and cuts in funding are an insult to Ireland’s most successful Olympic sport of the modern era this in itself does not stand up to close scrutiny for Irish sports funding for many years has been dependent on “medals won” at the Olympic Games be it Beijing 2008, London 2012 or Rio 2016.
Boxers had won four of the country’s five medals in London 2012 – Gold courtesy of Katie Taylor, a Silver for John Joe Nevin and Bronze medals for Mick Conlan, Paddy Barnes and Equestrian’s Cian O’Connor.
Our British friends for example have stopped all funding to Badminton, a sport which did gain a medal at Rio and several other sports in UK also suffered cut backs as did several top class athletes.
So there should not have been any unrealistic expectations about new funding and the warning signs were already there. Indeed back in September, Sport Ireland CEO, John Treacy told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland listeners that “If you are not performing it will affect funding, without a shadow of a doubt.”
“If sports are not following what we believe is the right path in terms of high performance, you would see reductions in high performance funding.”
He went on to explain then that Sport Ireland would carry out a detailed review of ALL sports successes and failures in Rio and that those who would benefit most were those that had improved the most since London 2012.
Insofar as boxing was concerned he concluded that any decisions would be “a matter for the board of Sport Ireland but we would be carrying out a high performance review, and that work is now starting.”
“We will look at the boxing programme and the reasons why it didn’t perform as expected.”
In that interview Treacy highlighted the fact that the boxers did not make best possible use of the High Performance Gymnasium at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown.
The €4m facility was rarely used by the boxers and several of the team including Paddy Barnes had complained about them not being transferred there.
Treacy commented that “they didn’t want to move out of South Circular Road because they thought it might be disruptive to the team. There is a world class gym here for boxers.”
“We want to see them in here on a regular basis. That will have to happen.”
Later that afternoon the IABA announced it would be using the Abbotstown facility “more extensively between now and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo as other areas of the Campus still under development are completed.”
The Association continued: “Irish boxers have won a total of 52 medals across all age categories at European and World level since the beginning of 2015.
“We believe that this, along with our strong track record in winning medals on the international stage, is a very solid platform from which to build for future Olympic success.”
Now after the full Rio review the IABA finds that funding has been reduced from Euros 900,000 to Euros 700,000 and inevitably there are now concerns for the future success of the sport and how they can produce further champions with less funding. Remember too that Taylor, Barnes and Conlan have since turned Pro and are ‘highly unlikely’ to take part in Tokyo since the IABA will give priority (and rightly so) to those who have remained with the National Federation.
It is true that the AIBA now allow Professionals to take part in Olympic qualifying competitions but it is most unlikely that Mick Conlan would even consider competing in a qualifier after his experiences in Rio. Likewise it’s unlikely that Paddy Barnes or Katie Taylor would re-join the AIBA/ IABA (which is a requirement for any Irish Pro boxer) as both will like Conlan be almost certainly fighting for World Pro titles and could conceivably even be world champions by then.
The world of AIBA boxing is forever changing and it cannot be ruled out that there will be more weights for women and even the possibility of Women Pros taking part in Tokyo 2020 so the ‘goalposts are effectively being moved’ slowly but surely. This reduction in funding could though also have an effect on sending potential stars of the future to International championships especially in faraway lands and that could undoubtedly also reduce the number of young women Youths and Juniors that the IABA could afford to send
The Sport Ireland review has now been presented – over 200 pages in all and space does not allow us to comment on the many points, mostly negative sadly, that have been included in the very open and honest review which the IABA would do well to implement in the months ahead. Next week we may well know who will be the new High Performance Unit Director and though most within the sport would have preferred an internal IABA promotion this seems highly unlikely. Indeed two of the main candidates are likely to be former ex-Irish Rugby supremo Eddie O’Sullivan and former world Pro boxing champion Bernard Dunne.
So boxing has lost €200,000 compared to the 2016 figure, leaving it trailing both athletics and sailing. So now it’s €700,000 rather than €900,000
One paragraph in that review is quite revealing:
“Many of those interviewed as part of this review expressed concerns about the ability of the IABA to implement the changes required to reinvigorate the High Performance Programme. Indeed, several of the recommendations have been highlighted previously in reviews carried out after previous Olympiads and in internal reviews conducted out by the programme itself. These concerns are well founded, as previous history suggests that organisational change is slow and hard to implement. However, the imperative for reform and decisive action should create an urgency to act. If the lessons learnt in the cycle from London to Rio are ignored the likelihood is that the High Performance Programme will continue to slide and under-achieve.”
There is also much comment regarding the IABA’s Commercial Strategy:
“The High Performance Programme is reliant almost exclusively on state funding through Sport Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland. One of the major failings of the IABA in this regard,has been the inability to raise self-generated commercial income on the back of the success of the programme. Whilst it is accepted that the sponsorship and commercial market is difficult, the bottom line is that boxing has been Ireland’s most successful Olympic sport by some distance and this should have been leveraged to raise additional revenues. The outcome of Rio and the recent controversies associated with the IABA and the High Performance Programme make this a much more difficult sell now. However, the organisation should focus on steps they can take to build confidence in the brand and create a platform for building positive relationships with potential commercial partners.”
Clearly the position of Head Performance Director is crucial to the future success of Irish boxing and there is nothing that requires the holder of that position to be a ‘boxing insider’. Clearly Bernard Dunne is emerging as “favourite” according to Irish media sources but in the writer’s opinion the IABA already has a top class HPU Technical Coach Zuar Antia. John Conlan is also currently part of the team and there are other excellent coaches that could be promoted within the IABA and current or former boxers added ready to become key players in future, for example Darren O’Neill is an obvious candidate.
Thus there is much to be said for the appointment of someone outside the sport who has ‘no axe to grind’ and who will oversee and ensure the success of the programme whilst leaving Zuar Antia as top man with responsibility for all aspects of Technical coaching. Eddie O’Sullivan who has vast experience in Managing Irish rugby teams would be an ideal man for the new ‘top job’. Whoever gets the job though must have full overall responsibility and not be required to “clear everything” with the IABA CEO. Many of the failures associated with Rio can be directly attributed to the way that the organisation has been run in recent years and if the present system just continues “as is” then it is difficult to see how Ireland can once again be a ‘boxing powerhouse’.
The times they are a changin’ and the IABA needs to change with the times and if that means wholesale changes within the IABA hierarchy at HQ level then so be it.
Pre-Rio Ireland had 14 funded boxers, now there are but 6 namely:
Podium Class – Joe Ward €40,000
World Class – Brendan Irvine €20,000
World Class – Steven Donnelly €20,000
World Class – David Oliver Joyce €20,000
World Class – Kelly Harrington €20,000
International – Christina Desmond €12,000
Sport Ireland boxing High Performance review incorporating Rio 2016 – 20 pages – here: