Tokyo 2020: Irish boxing fully recovered from the nightmare of Rio

Olympics medal success rewards the combined efforts of Conlan, Antia and Dunne

Aidan Walsh with his bronze medal and sister Michaela Walsh, a fellow member of Ireland’s boxing team. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Aidan Walsh with his bronze medal and sister Michaela Walsh, a fellow member of Ireland’s boxing team. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

From the ashes of Rio, it is not a leap of faith to say high performance director Bernard Dunne and his coaching crew have transformed a boxing landscape that was wary and cynical back into a medal-winning enterprise.

Rio was not just a disappointment for the sport in Ireland but an embarrassment for it globally with Michael Conlan caught up in a dark side of judging nobody ever wanted to see.

Afterwards all of the referees were suspended and it is one of the reasons an Olympic task force is running the boxing event in Tokyo and not the world governing body.

The Irish roster five years ago featured three Olympic medallists from London 2012, defending champion Katie Taylor in the women’s lightweight division and bronze medal winners Conlan and Paddy Barnes.

The team also had David Joyce, Joe Ward, Michael O’Reilly and Brendan Irvine. Taylor was the only woman who qualified.

But the boxing kicked off for Ireland worse than it ever had before, when the story broke on the day of the draw that O’Reilly had tested positive for a banned substance, methandienone. He was subsequently banned for four years. The first athlete was out of the Games before they event began.

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In the ring it wasn’t much better. Light flyweight Barnes got a bye before he lost to Samuel Carmona of Spain. Flyweight Irvine went out in the round of 32 to Shakobidin Zoirov, while featherweight Conlan was judged to have been beaten by Russian Vladimir Nikitin, who was so badly beaten he withdrew from his next bout.

David Joyce went out in the round of 16 as did Joe Ward with Stephen Donnelly losing to Moroccan Mohammed Rabii in a bronze medal bout. Taylor received a bye in the preliminary round before she too lost to Mira Potkonen in the quarterfinal.

Five years on with a bronze medal on its way to Belfast in the pocket of Aidan Walsh and Kellie Harrington lined up for an Olympic final and guaranteed a silver medal, Irish boxing sits again among nations 10 times its size.

Breaking it down further, a team of four men have produced a bronze medal and a team of three women at least a silver.

Role model

“I’ve great team-mates and they’re all lifting each other up all the time,” said Harrington after her quarter-final win on Thursday.

“Like, this morning I had my breakfast and I forgot my lunch coming out here and I forgot my bananas and what have you and Brendan Irvine goes over and picks up my lunch and my bananas.

“That’s what you call team-mates. That’s what you call a role model and a leader, and that’s not just Brendan, that’s the Team Ireland boxing team.”

It also begs the question just what reckless judgment the cabal that tried to unjustifiably undermine Dunne prior to the team travelling to Tokyo were trying to achieve. Boxing’s long and storied narrative always seems to have a chapter on infighting and the occasional coup.

Boxing has bridged the chasm of the post-Rio departure of Conlan, Taylor, Barnes and Ward, which was a massive loss of intellectual capital.

But this week Harrington and Walsh not only boxed superbly, but spoke beautifully too. The team building and preparation and the coaching of John Conlan and Zaur Antia, overseen by Dunne, has remapped boxing with medals.

“Once I started to get sent away with HP and started to see what I could actually do when I started to believe, that’s when I started to achieve,” said Harrington. Five years on believe they do.

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