Little time to rest on the long road to Rio as Irish sport put a glorious summer to bed
2012 OLYMPIC GAMES:Far from resting on their laurels, both Irish Olympic and Paralympic athletes will be starting another four-year cycle. And those behind the scenes are already ahead of the game, writes IAN O'RIORDAN
ON THE quiet shaded corner of the South Circular Road, life is stirring again, a slow awakening after a dreamlike summer. To everything, there is a season, turn, turn, turn – and none more turned over now than the London Olympics.
It’s the reason why Billy Walsh was back on the rounds on Tuesday morning, unlocking the doors to the High Performance Unit of the IABA: it’s hard enough to build a legacy, harder still to build on it, but the moment you start to rest on it is the moment it starts to crumble.
Bill Clinton always said it’s just one small step from legacy to lame duck, and he knew what he was talking about. Walsh knows it too: in less than a decade, he has helped build an Irish amateur boxing programme that for two weeks this summer was the envy of the world, or at least anyone at the London Olympics. In the decade before his arrival, Irish amateur boxing had become a lame duck, and there can’t be, won’t be, any going back, not on his watch.
On Monday, London mayor Boris Johnson described their Olympic parade as the “final tear sodden juddering climax” to a summer of sport, and he spoke for the masses. The Paralympics provided such a teasing and joyous encore that for a while it felt like the summer would never end, and now the party’s finally over, everybody has gone home, it’s no longer about the here and now, the there and then, but the what happens next.
Quadrennial is a big word, and some countries, and some sports, look at the four-year Olympic cycle differently to others. It used to be that the closing of an Olympics demanded some slow reflection, now it accentuates it, and if anything it’s less about the reflection than the immediate reaction: he not busy being born is being dying.
“That would always be one of my concerns, than some people might want to kick back, enjoy a bit of the sunshine,” says Gary Keegan, director of the Irish Institute of Sport. “But instead the one thing that has struck me about the coaches and athletes and performance directors coming back from the Olympics, and the Paralympics, is that desire, and hunger, to take it to the next level, and raise the bar again.
“What they all want to know is how we can improve again, and that is very encouraging, that so many of them are in that space. That’s why continuation from London is so important, and of course there will be some change as well. We’ll still be debriefing over the next few weeks, but the Rio process, 2016, is already underway, and it is all about the continuation, that’s already the focus.”
Out in Abbotstown, the Irish Institute of Sport, still operating “under the radar”, as Keegan himself puts it, can take as much credit as anyone for whatever legacy was built in London. Keegan, after all, was the brains behind the fresh legacy of Irish amateur boxing, and bought into the Institute when many others were still dismissing it as a lame duck.
“It’s taken some time,” he admits, “and there has been a lot of water under the bridge. But it’s about gaining trust of athletes as well, forging a way, to support and assist. What we’ve tried to do is operate in the Irish system. Other institutes in other countries might work differently, but we’ve tried to fill the gaps that are here, and I think we’ve set that up reasonably well, around the athletes’ needs.
“And as more athletes have tapped into the system, realised it actually works, that’s given us confidence. Mistakes will be made, but we’re a much closer community now, focused on the right things. And we’re still in our embryonic phase. That’s our first cycle over. But overall I think we’re already far advanced on where we were coming out of Beijing, that systems are in place, but at the same time no one can rest on their laurels.”
Keegan is not making this up: gather the 66 Irish athletes that competed in London, or the 16 medallists from the Paralympics, ask them who has the Irish Institute of Sport to thank, and most of them will put up their hand (and that includes the boxers down on the South Circular Road).
It used to be, too, that the closing of an Olympics, from an Irish perspective, marked the start of the blame games, the finger-pointing exercises, culminating in those bitterly biased Olympic reviews: eight years ago, in Athens, Ireland came home from the Olympics and Paralympics with a combined total of four medals (all in the Paralympics, actually, with three silvers, and one bronze); they came home from London with a combined total of 21, a five-fold increase, delivering more gold medals than any of us dared for.
“The target, for the London Olympics, was three medals, and nine finalists,” says Finbarr Kirwan, director of high performance at the Irish Sports Council. “We ended up with five medals, and 14 top 10s. So the bar has definitely been raised, and some sports continue to raise that. Paralympics especially. The challenge is that planning for Rio takes all that on board, but also identifies where the weaknesses were.
“Because what we won’t do is let the euphoria of say boxing, the Paralympics, blind us from the fact that are still pockets of weakness. We can’t even begin to think that every sport is as good as they can be, but that actually we left some medals behind in London, and realise that.”
Kirwan is not making this up either: he’s been director of high performance at the Irish Sports Council since 2003, and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge there, too. Like Keegan, his fear is that some sports might rest on their laurels, other sports might shy away from them, and that the road to Rio begins now.
“I think the system went under the microscope in London, that targets were achieved, the athletes and coaches and performance directors all stepping up. Now we’ve come to another milestone, no doubt about that. From our perspective, there was a little bit of a hiatus, after Beijing, and we want to make sure this time that those programmes, the preparation, and the execution, continues on out of London.
“Each of the Olympic sports will carry out their own review, with independent consultants, then come back to the Sports Council, and we’ll use that to develop performance plans for the next four-year cycle. But that planning process really is focused on a four-year cycle, so that means getting them in place as quickly as possible.”
That’s the legacy, the danger of losing it, and why Billy Walsh was back on duty this week. Boxing, more than any other sport, delivered on targets in London and managed to surpass them too. The sport was in a similar position coming out of Beijing, then very nearly fell apart, not just with the tragedy of Darren Sutherland, or the denials of Kenny Egan, but the tribulations within the IABA itself: Walsh was lined up to replace Keegan as high performance director, only for the IABA to appoint its own president, Dominic O’Rourke.
The Sports Council called a truce, and eventually O’Rourke was made director of boxing, and Walsh the high performance head coach – but if Walsh hadn’t been so selflessly cool about the situation he might easily have walked out the door, onto the South Circular Road, and never looked back.
Walsh – the man they say brings acts of love into the sport of violence – is already thinking Rio, building again on the Irish boxing legacy of London, but there are other countries thinking the same thing, how Walsh could help build their boxing legacy. He is so intensely passionate about Irish amateur boxing that it’s hard to ever imagine him leaving, working with another country, and ensuring that never happens is always going to be a tender process.
“That’s in negotiation, with the IABA,” says Kirwan, “and essentially it’s up to Billy, and Zaur Antia, Pete Taylor. Obviously we’d be very willing to support whatever proposal comes into us. But the first point of negotiation is between Billy and the IABA. Billy has been central to that programme, and the sense is he wants to stay involved, but there is always the fear we could lose him, because he’s recognised internationally now, no doubt about it.”
Boxing has other unique challenges post-London, the lure of the professional contract always greater when the next big fight night seems like a long four years away.
“There will always be the temptation of the professional route in boxing,” admits Kirwan, “but the programme in place for Irish boxers now, within the high performance unit, is legitimately world class. It would need to be an exceptional offer for the boxer to leave that environment.
“After Beijing, we sat down with the IABA on this, with boxers like Paddy Barnes, John Joe Nevin. They stayed within the system, the support was there. We’ve done if before, but there’s only so much we can do. What we do recognise is that is has to be solved quickly, and we have a template from Beijing. I certainly can’t speak for Katie Taylor, but hopefully we can keep her within the programme too.”
Keegan is reluctant to comment on the importance of Walsh to Irish boxing, the same way he is reluctant to use Irish boxing as the model for all Olympic sports: “That’s a challenge for any nation,” he says. “Any country that is successful will be looked at, observed, by countries not quite as successful, and the same applies to all our sports.
“At the same time it is a little unfair to compare some sports with others. Some sports are more metric based, with a lot more variables, and can’t be as centralised as say boxing can be.
“What we can do is exchange ideas, with other coaches, and that has to be hugely beneficial. Billy, and Pete Taylor, are part of our pursuit of excellence team. We’re a small county, but sometimes there are benefits to that, too. I’d be quite excited about that we can do in the next four years, if we all work together.”
What is certain is that some sports appear to work better together than others. It’s no secret that Athletics Ireland have had their issues with high performance directors, and while most sports are in the second phase of high performance programmes since they became the standard, Athletics Ireland is in its fifth phase, possibly its sixth, if some of the interim phases are also considered.
Kevin Ankrom took over the position in April of 2011 when the sport found itself at a familiar juncture, and although he was always realistic about the targets in London, the projected one top-eight, four top-12, and five top-16 in fact worked out as one top-eight, one top 12 (both Rob Heffernan), and four top-16.
Considering Beijing and Athens were equally poor, and likewise Sydney, beyond Sonia O’Sullivan’s silver medal, there is the fear that Irish athletics is simply no longer competitive on the Olympic stage, beyond individual or isolated performances.
“That is a very important debriefing,” says Kirwan, “but at the same time you have to remember that it’s not just about one single event, either. You have to take the broad view. These sports have a world and European outlet, as well. The Olympics are the most important, yes, but not the only one.”
For now, the debriefing continues, the review already underway, and one thing flagged long before London was the overhaul of the carding scheme, and elite athlete grants: the days of handing out €40,000 might not be over, not yet anyway, but there is sure to be more accountability come 2013, more demands for return on investment, because that ultimately is what high performance is all about.
“We all accept the Government still has some hard decisions to make when it comes to funding,” says Kirwan, “but we have an incredibly strong case now for the continued support of high performance sport, Olympic and Paralympic.
“We’re conscious that we have to keep squeezing that investment as much as we can. We’re also aware there’s not always a direct link between funding and medals.
“But we believe the link is strong, and stronger again when you link funding and performance. The athletes in the Olympics and Paralympics have proved that.”
PRECIOUS METAL: What is a good return?
It is almost entirely subjective, but what does represent a good return on a sporting investment? Four Olympic medals for a basic investment of €2.9 million certainly looks like an excellent return, which is what Irish boxing delivered in London, and indeed five Olympic medals in total for just under €26 million is still not bad.
A return of 16 medals at the Paralympics for a basic investment of €2.1 million would be hard to beat, yet that’s the sort challenge facing the elite programmes in Irish high performance over the next four-year cycle to the Rio Olympics in 2016.
And what is an Olympic medal worth? Well, €10,000, for a start, which is the bonus that each of the 21 medal winners at the Olympics (5) and Paralympics (16) will receive from the Irish Sports Council – gold, silver or bronze each considered equal.
And what about accountability? Not quite as straightforward, at least not compared to UK Athletics, given their Olympic head coach, Charles Van Commenee, resigned this week after failing to deliver on his target of eight track and field medals, including one gold. Instead, Van Commenee helped deliver six medals, including four gold.