Johnny Watterson: Malicious and damaging document is Irish boxing deja vu
Faceless attack on HPU head in run-up to Tokyo Olympics is from an old playbook
Former Ireland boxing coach Billy Walsh. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Nicolas Cruz Hernandez, Gary Keegan, Billy Walsh – all have their tales to tell about Irish boxing, how and why they came and left and what mark it had on their careers. Bernard Dunne’s name now comes spiralling into the headlines as a section of the sport once again turns on one of its own.
The unsigned, faceless document circulated and stamped with faux official approval and anonymously presented as a “position paper” on the state of amateur boxing in Ireland attempts to eviscerate the head of the high-performance unit (HPU), one looked on with envy by all of the other Olympic sports in Ireland.
The wrecking-ball “analysis”, devoid of not only names but any data to back up the claims, certainly seemed to have decided on its research goals. There is no mention of the questions that were asked or how conclusions were drawn and, as Sport Ireland pointed out, there is no merit to what is grandly explained as a consultation with members, coaches and administrators.
But it is more than that. It is malicious and is damaging to the morale of the HPU, the coaches and the boxers such a short time out from trying to qualify for a difficult Tokyo Olympics. Boxing has, so far, just one athlete qualified in Brendan Irvine due to Covid restrictions.
The sad aspect is that this is an old playbook. One of the main points that came out of Sport Ireland’s Rio review after a disappointing 2016 Olympics, and before Dunne was appointed in 2017, was “a lack of autonomy for decision-making within the high performance programme”.
At one stage in 2017, boxing had two boards claiming to be legitimate, one dubbed the board, the other fondly dubbed the continuity board. Five members of the IABA board had approved David O’Brien as chairman of the IABA, but Sport Ireland insisted that Joe Christle was the chairman and therefore had no reason to believe that there was “another chairman of the organisation or an alternative board”.
At the same time the IABA was warned it would have its funding discontinued from the summer of 2017 unless it resolved what were “significant issues of concern”.
In a strongly worded statement, Sport Ireland said that there were “ongoing governance issues”. Among those was the requirement for the IABA to resolve the ongoing question of autonomy of the then new high-performance director Dunne, whose team selection for that month’s European Championships was challenged by the IABA’s central council. They wanted to have a say in the selection.
Roll on a few months to later that year, when the decorated Billy Walsh was a guest on The Late Late Show and spoke of his acrimonious departure from Irish boxing and subsequent move into the US women’s boxing team.
“When I made my decision in October two years ago, there was no looking back,” Walsh told Ryan Tubridy.
“Now I cried for many nights in a room. I was at a training camp prior to the world championships and I knew then that it was over. I got a contract [from the IABA] that all I was managing was the gym.
“I had no control over any part of the programme, which I had previously. No selection, I had no management at all over the budget or anything. I had designed the budget, designed the programme, all of that. All I was doing was looking after the gym.
“At the stage, when I made up my mind, I made up my mind and that was it. For me, it was over.”
After Sport Ireland laboriously and finally resolved the old turf wars and restored two boards to one and approved a new rulebook and new agreements, they too thought it was over.
They believed there would be no interference in the Olympic team or high-performance unit. They thought all of boxing had signed up to remain at peace and that a situation like that of Walsh’s could never happen again.
Then the document pops up at a sensitive time in the Irish team’s preparation for the Olympic qualifiers in Paris only weeks away. Boxing deja vu, like no other.