Rio 2016

Ireland’s Olympic scandal: From medal dreams to a failed drugs test

Michael O’Reilly’s road to Rio was never straightforward but Team Ireland didn’t expect to be here.

Sinéad O’Carroll reports from Rio de Janeiro

A HEALTHY NUMBER of the Irish journalists in Rio gathered at the Bradesco Theatre this morning for the official Olympic Games 2016 boxing draw.

For them it was essential they track the fighters — Ireland’s strongest hope for medals, plural — from the get-go.

They were expecting a few byes for the athletes seeded top or near it and would spend the rest of the afternoon working out the permutations of the draw: how many fights would guarantee a medal of any colour? Can we avoid the Cubans on this side? When will Katie fight?

What they didn’t expect was to have to ask questions about a failed drugs test within the popular and incomparable team.

The news of the “alleged violation of the Irish anti-doping rules” by a male boxer dropped first from back home – the source an unusual one for a sporting story, the Irish Examiner’s political editor.

There were few answers to be had in the Brazilian host city as journalists put their questions to Sport Ireland, the IABA and the AIBA.

There are only seven male boxers. Then the inevitable naming.

Portlaoise’s Michael O’Reilly is provisionally suspended, his bout next Friday evening, 12 August in jeopardy.

His failed test was taken before leaving Ireland for Rio. Sport Ireland’s Anti-Doping Agency returned the adverse analytical finding in an A-sample provided by the fighter to anti-doping officers.

O’Reilly can now request to have his B-sample tested but cannot participate in any competition or activity. The IABA has a ‘zero tolerance’ approach, it says, before emphasising in a statement today that Irish boxing has been “one of the most widely tested sports by the National Anti-Doping Programme over the last number of years”.

‘Due process’ must now get underway and there will be no further comment from anybody about the matter on the eve of the opening of the 2016 Games. No official authority, it should be noted, has named O’Reilly. They are only permitted to do so if he accepts the sanctions against him or if the B-sample also returns an adverse analytical finding.

A tweet, sent out from O’Reilly’s Twitter account hours after the controversy broke, indicated that he expects his Olympic plans to continue uninterrupted.

This is new territory. Controversy does not follow this boxing team around.

Paddy Barnes is the flagbearer for Ireland tomorrow evening. With his London 2012 bronze medal, a unique Belfast joie-de-vive and an enviable friendship with Michael Conlan, he is unfailingly popular. He is a sportsman that you want all your sportsmen to be.

Katie Taylor. In the same league. Maybe an even higher one.

The trio are team leaders by default, experienced medallists and Irish household names.

Michael O’Reilly is less known — though his star has been rising since he took gold at the inaugural European Games in Baku last year and then bronze at the world championships.

The 23-year-old Portlaoise Boxing Club man has won Irish nationals three times and came into the Olympic Games seeded third in the 75kg middleweight division. 

His qualification, though, only came on the third attempt. A sign of a more complicated career.

Back in 2011, O’Reilly launched – and won – a legal action against the IABA which had decided to drop him from the panel to choose Ireland’s European Youth Championship team.

The then-18-year-old argued that he was unfairly sidelined after what was reported as an ‘incident of indiscipline’, named as failing to turn up for a training camp.

The High Court found that the IABA had acted beyond its powers in excluding O’Reilly from the panel. However, the judge at the time did note it was unfortunate the dispute could not have been resolved internally, without resorting to the courts.

O’Reilly went on to win a silver medal at the championship.

There was more trouble to come though.

After controversially missing out in an Olympic box-off at the 2015 World Championships, O’Reilly travelled to the final European qualifier in Turkey in April in a bid to book his ticket.

But after a shock elimination in his opening bout, he and team-mate Dean Walsh were sent home from Samsun for breaching team rules. The sanctions for his misbehaviour also reportedly included a €5,000 fine.

At the time, IABA president – and his coach – Pat Ryan confirmed to The Sun newspaper that there was an issue involving two fighters which had been resolved after an internal investigation.

In that statement, one that echoes that issued today, he said there was a zero tolerance approach. He added that nobody was allowed to bring the association into disrepute.

Another statement tonight – from the Olympic Council of Ireland – was more tempered. There will be no further communication on the issue until the next step in the process is complete. There are two paths: O’Reilly accepts the sanctions in front of him for the failed test or get the B-sample tested.

Only then will we know whether there will be an Irish boxer in the ring in the middleweight division on 12 August. On the eve of the Olympic Games, none of us saw ourselves standing on the edge of this particular circus ring.

Read: Irish Olympic boxer Michael O’Reilly has failed a doping test

More: Mick Dowling on Michael O’Reilly: ‘You are responsible for whatever you put into your mouth’

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