Johnny Watterson: Young boxers pay the price for an administrative shambles

IABA and boxers shocked as Minister denies a Government instruction existed which meant they could not fight Russian opponents without facing sanctions

A few years ago the boxing coach Jim O’Neill said that he thought young talent Evelyn Igharo had what it takes to become a world champion.

Igharo, whose hometown is Dundalk, was making the progress O’Neill had predicted and she was selected to box for Ireland at the European Under-22 championships in Budva, Montenegro, which finished 11 days ago.

A young black girl growing up in Ireland, Igharo has faced all sorts of abuse and during a fight in the National Stadium several years ago it became so vile that her coach turned from his corner to face the offensive crowd and remonstrate. In an interview with HerSport in 2020, Igharo spoke about that night.

“I was boxing for an Irish title. It was a close fight. It started with booing. They booed me and then saying black witch and all sorts of names. I could hear them really loudly,” she said.


A 14-time Irish champion, she persevered with boxing and having taken a break was coaxed back for the European Championships. The light middleweight was proud of herself for making the Irish team, proud for her family, proud for her coaches and her club, Clann Naofa BC.

She was progressing as everyone had hoped and was proud that she had come through the preliminary bouts and into medal territory.

In the quarter-final, Igharo had too much for Turkey’s Yaren Dueztas and earned a unanimous 5-0 win. She was into the semi-finals.

But as she was due to face a Russian opponent, Igharo was forced to withdraw from that fight on Wednesday and see her hopes of a medal disappear. This was due to the IABA’s enforcement of an instruction that they understood to have been handed down by the Government and Sport Ireland.

It was believed that boxers must withdraw if they were drawn against fighters from Russia or Belarus or face sanction. She was the third Irish boxer to withdraw from that competition following Kian Hedderman and Gavin Rafferty.

At the junior World Championships this week in Armenia, Tegan Farrelly drew a Russian first round and didn’t get to fight. Same instruction. Children of 16-years-old or younger being forced to take political stances because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Absolutely heartbroken I’ve had to withdraw from the world championships in my very first fight because I drew a Russian,” said Farrelly online.

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, an exchange was taking place in the Dáil when Deputy Chris Andrews questioned the Minister for Sport, Thomas Byrne, during a select committee meeting.

“If an Irish fighter took on a Russian or Belarussian, will there be consequences for the club, for the individual,” he asked.

“No,” said the minister and acknowledged the guidance issued by the department and other like-minded Ministers had placed “athletes and the IABA, in a very difficult position in particular. But we have always been very clear that the IABA is an autonomous organisation and that they make their own decisions”.

So, Irish boxing could, in fact, make its own decision on Russians and Belarusians without sanction. That was news to the IABA. It confounded their president Gerry O’Mahony. It was news to Igharo. Too late. It was news to Hedderman. Too late. It was news to Rafferty and news to Farrelly. Too late.

The IABA issued a statement on Thursday. “The IABA is taken aback by comments made by the Minister for Sport in the Houses of the Oireachtas . . . which appear to contradict all previous guidance on Irish athletes contesting against those from Russia or Belarus boxing under their own flag”, it said.

Furthermore, boxing “has engaged, fully, with the Department of Sport and Sport Ireland on this guidance since Ireland became a signatory to the inaugural collective statement on this and related matters by the ministers for sport of 36 countries.

“The IABA selected, provisioned and briefed two teams within the framework of this guidance . . . The IABA engaged with the Department of Sport on this matter during this period and no amendment of existing guidance was conveyed.”

You would wonder if instead of boxing, what the consequences would be if an Irish schools rugby team was treated with similar cavalier indifference, if young teenagers hoping to one day play in a Six Nations or World Cup were “briefed” to believe in a directive by their Government, which removed them from competition, but was not, in fact a directive at all.

For the boxers, some potentially Ireland’s future Olympic champions, you could ask where was the respect? Was it taking Tegan Farrelly to Armenia for nothing because someone forgot – to or did not bother to convey to her association – that she was permitted to compete against a Russian athlete without sanction all along and find the measure of her dreams.

After the Minister’s statement on Wednesday, Farrelly’s Irish team-mate John Donoghue was permitted to fight against a Russian on Thursday. He won his quarter-final at 63kg. What differing experiences they will bring home from the Yerevan omnishambles.