Silver successes for the O’Donovan brothers and Annalise Murphy couldn’t disguise Team Ireland’s failures in the boxing ring
Michael Conlan raised his arms aloft, a grimace etched across his sweat-drenched face, and let out an almighty roar, writes Adam Shaw. Once outside the ring, he let the world know exactly how he felt about his latest fight in Rio de Janeiro – it wasn’t something that he, nor anyone else, would forget easily.
But those fists were not lifted in triumph; rather they were pushed out in protest, accompanied by two middle fingers jutting out in the direction of the judges. The expression on his face was not one of an Olympian who had been pushed to his limit in order to progress but was one of frustration and disappointment.
His outpouring of passion was not done in triumph; it was done in defeat, despite his claims that he was “a winner”. It wasn’t meant to be like this.
Conlan was meant to brush aside Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin and secure Ireland’s first boxing medal of the 2016 Games. There were whispers that he could go all the way and become the country’s first male gold medal winner in the sport since Michael Carruth in Barcelona ‘92.
Bookmaker Paddy Power certainly seemed to think so. It promised to pay out on all bets placed on Conlan to prevail in his quarter-final bout, as well as to those who had tipped him to win the top prize. This was not a charitable action, and while cynics will point to the benefits of publicity and securing customer loyalty, there was method in their madness.
Conlan was, in the eyes of many, “robbed”. It is a common claim in sport, but one that seems to rear its ugly head more regularly in boxing. Almost everyone who watched the fight could see that the Belfast man was dominant. Nikitin might have, at a push, nicked one of the rounds, but to declare him the overall winner seemed absurd.
It wasn’t the first time we had seen this. The night before, Kazakhstan’s Vasily Levit pounded his opponent, Evgeny Tishchenko, another Russian, for most of the heavyweight gold medal fight. The referee lifted the “wrong” man’s hand and the crowd began to boo, just as they did at the decision in Conlan’s scrap.
Levit must have known that he had been cheated and even his conqueror looked embarrassed as his corner celebrated wildly at the announcement. But the Kazakh took it all in his stride, disappointed, obviously, but gracious in defeat.
“AIBA are cheats, f****** cheats, simple as that. That’s me; I’ll never box for AIBA again. They’re cheating b*******, they’re paying everybody,” he raged. “I was here to win Olympic gold. My dream’s been shattered now. You know what, I’ve a big career ahead of me. And these ones. They’ve always been cheats. Amateur boxing stinks. From the core right to the top.
“I thought I boxed the ears off him in the first round, but they scored it against me. So I had to fight his fight, which I did, outfought him. It’s a shambles to be honest.
“I’m gutted, from the bottom of my heart. I wanted to go back with a gold medal to Ireland. Now I feel I’m going back a loser. I’m not a loser, I’m a winner. Today just showed how corrupt this organisation is.”
Conlan’s emotional assault on amateur boxing’s governing body provided one of the highlights of Ireland’s Olympic campaign – underscoring its generally conflicting nature.
It started before it had begun as golfing superstar Rory McIlroy pulled out over fears surrounding the Zika virus. Then medal hope Michael O’Reilly tested positive for a banned substance and was sent home in shame. Throughout the Games it was a case of near misses.
Thomas Barr overachieved in the 400m hurdles but still finished an agonising fourth. The legendary race walker Rob Heffernan could only manage sixth in the men’s 50km. Diver Oliver Dingley came eighth in the 3m springboard, while Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffee matched this feat in the modern pentathlon.
So close, yet so far. But in spite of these often glorious shortcomings, there were still a few moments to cherish for Team Ireland.
Annalise Murphy claimed the first Irish sailing medal in 36 years as she took silver in the women’s laser radial discipline. After finishing just outside the top three in London four years ago, she was granted sweet redemption at Guanabara Bay.
Then there were the O’Donovan brothers. The lightweight scullers Paul and Gary from Skibbereen, Co. Cork, also returned with silver medals, but they won so much more during their stint in Rio. Hilarious interviews, a down-to-earth attitude and a genuine love of the craic propelled them to internet stardom.
They won the hearts of millions and thoroughly deserved their time in the spotlight. What’s more, they will have inspired many more Irish to take to the water and get involved with rowing. That, they will say, is their true legacy.
A mixed Olympics for Ireland, a mixed Olympics full stop.
Michael Phelps returned to the pool and won another five golds. Wayde van der Niekerk broke Michael Johnson’s 16-year-old 400m record. Simone Biles wowed in the gymnastics arena. Kosovo, Fiji and Jordan stood on the podium for the first time. Neymar sent a packed Maracanã into raptures as the hosts beat Germany on penalties in the men’s football final.
Darker moments included poor attendances, incidents of robberies and non-robberies, boos for drugs cheats and critics of Brazil, women’s clothing overshadowing their sporting achievements and a refused handshake damaging the ‘Olympic spirit’.
Once again, the spoils of competition were at loggerheads with off-the-field issues.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Irish boxing. While Conlan ranted and raved and O’Reilly was banished, the other squad members suffered further disappointments.
David Oliver Joyce, Joseph Ward and Brendan Irvine all fell at some stage, though none in contentious circumstances. Paddy Barnes had hoped for one last hurrah but he looked weak and exhausted as he suffered a shock defeat in his first fight; losing on a split-decision to Spain’s Samuel Carmona Heredia.
Ireland’s golden girl, Katie Taylor, a champion in London, was bettered by a woman who had never previously taken a round off her. As with Conlan, though perhaps not so irrefutably, she was judged to have been the inferior fighter despite a seemingly strong performance.
Her father, Pete Taylor, told The Irish Independent: “No disrespect to [Mira] Potkonen, but she’s not fit to lace Katie’s boots. I personally think the authorities don’t want Katie at the top any more. I get the impression they just want new faces there.”
He went further, however, and gave a damning view of the situation of Irish boxing, believing that it has suffered greatly since Billy Walsh was prized away to the US. “Every one of our boxers looked tired,” he said. “They all looked overtrained. And everyone could see the tactics were poor.
“The best team we’ve ever sent to an Olympics and it’s been a shambles.”
The success of the O’Donovans and Murphy might sufficiently bolster Ireland’s attitude towards Rio. The AIBA might be f****** cheats. Taylor, and Irish boxing, could come back stronger, as could Irish Olympic sport in general. But one thing is clear – this has been a relatively tough few weeks in one way or another. And that’s before we even get started on Pat Hickey…