Tipping Point: IABA fiasco shows just how petty we are as a nation
Some people in boxing saw Billy Walsh as a milkman from Wexford who got lucky
Michael Conlan kisses coach Billy Walsh after winning the world bantamweight semi-final. Something that was working got taken apart and destroyed. Photograph: Paul Mohan
A few days after Seamus Heaney died in 2013, there was an Ireland soccer international in Lansdowne. It was against Sweden, right at the fag end of the Trap era and the night was cold, even though it was only early September. When the referee gathered the players into the centre circle for a minute’s silence before kick-off, we dutifully stood and bowed our heads for the demise of a great Irishman.
Or, well, some of us did. The chap standing beside me, it’s fair to say, wasn’t overly pleased. In fact, he was in a bit of a huff at the whole thing. He clicked his tongue and folded his arms and tsked his way through the otherwise solemn occasion. And as it came to an end, with the crowd swelling into applause for the deceased Nobel laureate, he leaned over and harrumphed: “Never saw him at a match . . . ”
Dead serious he was too.
We’re a small country sometimes. A small, petty, grasping nation with an instinctive suspicion of success. In all the back and forth between Billy Walsh and the IABA last week, it was easy to get bogged down in minutiae. Because the whole farrago ended in a hail of contracts and clauses and figures – and will play out over the coming days as a political pissing match – the wider truth got washed away.
This was something that worked. You can’t say it any more simply than that. Billy Walsh as the guiding light of our most successful Olympic sport was something in Irish sport that worked. Usually, you need a very good reason to change something that works. There was no good reason here.
Someone wanted this
According to Vincent Hogan’s terrific read on Saturday in the Indo, the first response of the IABA when Walsh told them about the offer from America back in February was to say that when the time came, they should issue an amicable joint press statement.
To repeat: this was something that was working. But instead of urgent action to ensure it continued working, they were already planning on how to spin its demise.
What explains that motivation? It feels like more than simple tall poppy syndrome. The commonplace idea that we are a nation of begrudgers has always seemed like a bit of a stretch, as if there’s something peculiarly Irish about finding something to resent in the achievements of others. That, surely, is a human thing, as old as coveting your neighbour’s ox/wife/metaphor.
This wasn’t just a case of taking Walsh down a peg or two or consistently reminding him that he had to report to a higher power. It was about keeping the landscape flat for everyone. Part of the IABA’s argument during negotiations with Sport Ireland was that if they gave Walsh a pay rise, then everyone would want one. Coaches, boxers, support staff, the lot. A sporting body living in fear of the ambition of its members is pretty insidious, when you think about it.
Who does he think he is?
That, right there, is a far more uniquely Irish trait than begrudgery. The notion that you are who you are and that’s the end of it. The FAI don’t have a role anywhere in Irish football for Brian Kerr. The IRFU has no use for Eddie O’Sullivan. But sure at the back of it all, one’s a lab technician and the other’s a PE teacher. What loss are they, really?
The IABA and Sport Ireland will be up in front of the politicians on Wednesday to scrabble about in the dirt over who did what and who said which. But none of it matters in the slightest at this point. A far more interesting exercise would be to try and work out why, on this tiny island and with this puny population, we divest ourselves of home-grown talent so readily. What is it in us? And can it please be taken out of us?
Something that was working got taken apart and destroyed. In the end, small nation that we are, we just couldn’t help ourselves.