Broken Rings Doc of the Week

Broken Rings

Despite coming into the games with high hopes, the Irish boxing team left the 2016 Rio Olympics empty-handed after some controversial judging decisions. But did some of the bigger calls made in the run-up to the games also contribute to their downfall? This two-part documentary looks for answers. eir sport 1, Mon, April 16th 21.30

It was meant to be a glorious summer for Irish boxing, but it ended in chaos and heartbreak. It was one of the most promising Irish sports teams ever assembled with two world champions and several other medal favourites. Hopes were high but, once the games commenced, the dream soured and soured quickly. Defeat after defeat in the ring was played out against a backdrop of controversy, tabloid headlines and allegations of drug abuse, gambling and corruption.

Included in the eight-strong Irish team were London 2012 lightweight gold medallist Katie Taylor, light flyweight Paddy Barnes (bronze in 2008 and 2012), bantamweight Michael Conlan (bronze 2012), light heavyweight European gold and world silver medallist Joe Ward and European gold and world bronze medallist Michael O’Reilly. The others were welterweight Steven Donnelly, double European lightweight champion David Oliver Joyce and European lightweight silver medallist Brendan Irvine. Such was the expectation around the team that Barnes was selected as the flag bearer for the opening ceremony.

So where did it all go wrong? Presented by noted journalist and broadcaster Ger Gilroy, Broken Rings tries to sort through the debris of what proved a disastrous episode in Irish sporting history. Filmed with full access to the team during the games together with exclusive interviews with Michael Conlan, Paddy Barnes, former head coach Billy Walsh and others upon their return, it examines to what extent outside forces were responsible for the disappointing performance or whether the Irish were, in fact, the architects of their own downfall.

Storm clouds

Some might argue that was an accident waiting to happen. There was a shadow hanging over the games long before the distasteful opening ceremony in which the city’s favelas, slums rife with poverty and violence, were portrayed as colourful aspects of local culture by the organisers.

That poor judgement extended into the sporting arena as well. The AIBA, the body that governs amateur boxing worldwide was deep in debt, much of it to Chinese and various former Soviet satellite state interests and these countries were hungry for medals. That should have set the alarm bells ringing in a sport that was already plagued by rumours of corruption. If it didn’t, the decision to revert from electronic judging to the old paper-based system just before the games began must surely have. A new cabal of judges, known cynically as ‘The Magnificent Seven’, was formed which, many felt, was merely a mechanism for ensuring that key decisions went the ‘right’ way.

There were rumours that the Russian who fought in Conlan’s division was guaranteed a medal before the games even began. At their pre-games camp in Rio ahead of the event, the Irish camp tried hard to ignore these whispers, but it certainly can’t have helped their preparations.

Irish problems

But the Irish team had problems of their own in the run-up to the games. The decision to allow head coach Billy Walsh to leave for the USA the previous October exposed serious divisions within the IABA (Irish Amateur Boxing Association). Walsh had been acting head of the High Performance Unit which had been set up more than a decade earlier. He took on the role when the initial High Performance Director, Gary Keegan, left and wasn’t replaced. Walsh tendered his resignation after eight months of protracted negotiations, with many people close to the sport here unhappy with the IABA’s explanation of events.

Walsh was replaced as head coach on an interim basis by Zaur Antia, a hugely respected figure in the world of amateur boxing who had been part of the Irish set-up for some years. However, many felt that Irish boxing would pay a heavy price for its treatment of the Wexford native who explains in the piece that he had no wish to leave in the first place. The IABA, for its part, insisted that it had done everything it could to make him stay. It certainly wasn’t ideal heading into an Olympic year.

Walsh had a special bond with the boxers which proved hard to replicate. His tenure had been the most successful in Irish boxing history which meant his departure couldn’t but leave a massive hole at the heart of the organisation. Was this where the rot began to set in? With captain Barnes struggling to make the weight and other internal issues and controversies surrounding the team, is blaming the judges for what were undoubtedly controversial decisions merely a convenient smokescreen for something that was doomed to failure from the start?

Part two of Broken Rings which looks at how the events in Rio played out will be shown on eir sport 1 on Mon, April 23rd at 21.30. Read more on that next week.

Images: Getty

There are plenty of great documentaries to watch out for on the eir sport pack every week. From football to golf, GAA, rugby, athletics and beyond, we’ve got something for everyone. Watch out next week for another fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the sporting world or go to for more sports news and stories or to find out more about how we're setting sport free.

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