Plan that gave us a fighting chance
BOXING:The preparation of Irish boxers has been transformed since 2003 and a close-knit team environment continues to produce outstanding results, writes JOHNNY WATTERSONin London
BOXING HAS cracked no secret code. It has not found an underground method that has been eluding other sports. When the Chinese athletes rocked out of their training camp in the hills in the 1990s and their coach, Ma Jungren, claimed his brand of turtle soup had unlocked the deep mysteries of distance running and put motors in their legs, the world struggled to believe it.
Boxing has no secret elixirs or keys to unlock the door to medal riches. But it does have a plan that has been uncompromising and at times harsh. Yesterday in London we saw the fruits of that, with John Joe Nevin showboating in the final round of an Olympic semi-final against the Cuban world champion.
Boxing has always been a first-past-the-post sport. When Ireland looks at the US and watches their national championships, which decide who goes to the Olympic Games, it is brutally simple. Athletes are picked according to where they come in the race and if they are not in the first three they stay at home.
This year former Olympic 400m champion Jeremy Wariner is watching London 2012 from home. Dan O’Brien, the great American hope and world record holder in the Decathlon, suffered the same fate in 1996.
Closer to home, Joe Ward, the European light heavyweight champion, remains in Moate. One poor tournament in Baku and a bad decision in Turkey removed him from his Olympic dream. There are no off days, no injury issues, no excuses. Boxing has always been like that.
But it is only in recent years the sport has become professionally focused. Gary Keegan, now in the Irish Institute of Sport, and head coach Billy Walsh sat down to put a stout framework on boxing, one that has now come to be an Olympic medal delivery system.
This week it was again shining, just as it did in Beijing, where Ireland collected a silver and two bronze medals. With Katie Taylor’s appeal, boxing has also shifted from worthy and respected to popular and appealing and has probably outstripped athletics in the Irish psyche as the top Irish Olympic sport. Four Olympic medals, including a gold for Taylor, is nothing short of a spectacular return from a team of six athletes.
The discussion and decision to change took place prior to 2003. The question they asked was how to make the sport medal-winning and keep an elite line of athletes moving through.
It was immediately apparent that within boxing there was going to be great resistance to tearing up a traditional method that had served well. It wasn’t easy. It was hearts and minds stuff from Walsh and Keegan, whose job was to convince the sport that the new system would work and to believe in it.
“The programme started in 2003. It took us a few years,” explains Walsh. “Change is very difficult. For people to change you have to make incremental successes early.”
Ireland won no medals in the 2003 World Championships in Bangkok. Two years later in Mianyang, China, that was repeated. In 2007, when the Chicago World Championships returned nothing, there was a mini-crisis. But boxing had faith and held its nerve.