Irish boxing went from riding the crest of a London wave in 2012 to crashing down into the Rio sands four years later.
Everything that could have went wrong during our last Olympic adventure, did – and the Olympic torch that shone over Rio seems to have cast a chilling shadow over Irish boxing that has proved hard to shake.
Ironically, going into the 28th Games, the Irish boxing team were the pride of Team Ireland. The High Performance had qualified eight fighters, more than ever before in the qualification era – and arguably had a stronger team than the decorated London crew.
Michael Conlan was reigning world champion, Katie Taylor was still the queen of her realm, Paddy Barnes was Ireland’s most experienced Olympian and of course a bronze magnet. All three were favourites with the bookies to top the podium and that’s before mentioning medal machine Joe Ward and Michael O’Reilly who was being viewed as the greatest dark horse since Black Beauty. Beyond this there was the trio of David Oliver Joyce, Steven Donnelly, and Brendan Irvine – there’s always a bolter, isn’t there?
Those predicting a five medal haul that would contain three precious golds wouldn’t have been scoffed at. Those predicting Ireland would come home empty-handed would have been.
However, that’s what happened. The Games many expected to our best ever, thanks to the influence of boxers, ended up being a disaster.
The fact Michael O’Reilly was kicked out before glove off didn’t help and, in fairness to the fighters and the support team, the corruption warned by R&J Seamus Kelly played a part.
Michael Conlan suffered an Olympic robbery akin to the ones suffered Roy Jones and Floyd Mayweather, but there was no silver or bronze lining for him as he was held up in the quarters.
An emotional and angry Conlan and his beautifully executed middle finger gesture ensured the world knew his childhood dream was blocked by brown envelopes – and hindsight makes it quite conceivable underhand tactics prevented Ward and Taylor from having their hand raised earlier in the tournament.
A ‘boxing is corrupt’ vibe quickly gripped the nation and respect levels for our most successful Olympic sport dropped.
Although the Irish boxing team were hard done by, and in some instances individuals both inside and outside of the ring did little to help themselves, that wider negative opinion of the purest of sports has proved hard to shake.
The National Elite Championships haven’t attracted the same kind of mainstream media they used to and international medals certainly don’t come wrapped in the fanfare they once did. Casuals lost faith in the sport, the media reacted accordingly and there hasn’t been much love for the sweet science outside of the boxing family.
The only headlines surrounding boxing have been negative – granted the sport itself hasn’t helped itself with public infighting that caused government upset.
Would you believe that, since Rio, Irish boxers have won a total of 21 medals across the World, European, and EU Championships? And that’s without mentioning the conveyor belt of underage success. No? Well that speaks volumes.
Kellie Harrington has been a bright star amidst a blackout but take for example Kurt Walker. The Lisburn feather should be a superstar and should have a profile the size of his medal cabinet. An Irish athlete with a comparable amount of silverware in any other Olympic sport sure would be.
Again we accept boxing in Ireland and around the world hasn’t helped itself but hopefully, it will step back into the positive spotlight in Tokyo.
Olympics is king – especially in boxing.
It’s why these Games are so important for boxing on the island. We need some light, some joy, some positive boxing memories in the public eye and to feel pride in the sport again.
We need new heroes for the youth of the day to aspire to be and that kind of reward all those that graft at grassroots level can only get every four years.
We need a new Mullingar Shuffle, a new ‘Katie Taylor, seaimpín na hEorpa, seaimpín an domhain, agus seaimpín Olympics anseo‘, a new Paddy Barnes v Zou Shiming classic, and a new Michael Carruth hop.
The future of the sport may not depend on a good showing in Tokyo but no doubt the future of the sport is brighter if a feel-good factor takes hold over the next few weeks. And it’s quite possible there was never a time when boxing needed or would welcome becoming a media darling via Olympic success more.
The first shoots of spring started to appear in the romantic surrounds of Paris last month. The European Olympic Qualifier brought back a familiar feel-good buzz, with the wider public getting on board with the likes of Emmet Brennan’s heart-warming story of perseverance, the sibling success of Michaela and Aidan Walsh, and the sensational skills of Harrington.
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The icy relationship boxing seems to have had with the media and those outside the fanatical started to thaw and we need the heat to be cranked up further in Tokyo.
Victims of the successes of those before them, medals are now the only measure of success for Irish boxers. Whereas a PB or reaching a final is a job well done for most Irish athletes, more is expected from those in the ring.
Is this fair? No. The oddsmakers are predicting ‘just’ one medal for the boxers. This team is less experienced than the behemoths which proceeded it but it is stacked with inspirational characters, stories, and role models. Athletes performing at the highest level, above what is rationally expected of them.
Here’s hoping for the rub of the green, a few performances of a lifetime, and maybe a medal or two to celebrate at the end of it.
God knows we need it. God knows boxing needs it.