Little time to rest on the long road to Rio as Irish sport put a glorious summer to bed
“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.