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Irvine forced to play the waiting game as Olympics are pushed back

Brendan Irvine following his victory over Istvan Szaka last Monday.

Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Andrew Fosker Brendan Irvine following his victory over Istvan Szaka last Monday. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Andrew Fosker
By David Mohan

IN the midst of the mayhem and uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been some good news stories and Brendan Irvine’s qualification for a second Olympic Games certainly ticks that box.

While the Tokyo Games have now been pushed back to 2021 following discussions between the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government this week, Team Ireland’s boxing captain can still look forward to competing at ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ for a second time even though he will have to wait longer than initially expected.

Olympic boxing’s European Qualifier began in London last Sunday before moving behind closed doors on the Monday and was then called off after the final bell that evening, leaving the majority of boxers with more questions than answers.

Aidan Walsh won his opening bout on the Monday but requires two further wins to secure his place at the Olympics, while older sister Michaela didn’t get to box at all – a scenario shared by several others on the Irish team.

Kurt Walker and Carly McNaul lost out at the Copper Box in their bouts, meaning they know they must go to the final world qualifier in Paris that was initially pencilled in for June but will now likely take place much later in the year.

The only member of the Irish team to return from London having achieved what he set out to was team captain Irvine as the St Paul’s man defeated Hungary’s Istvan Szaka to reach the quarter-finals in the flyweight division where eight places were up for grabs to European boxers.

‘Rooster’ joined an exclusive club in becoming a two-time Olympian and he admits it is a surreal feeling to have achieved such a feat.

“It doesn’t sound real – it’s a bit crazy,” said the 23-year-old.

“When you think of the ones I’d know who have been to two Olympics like Paddy (Barnes), Mick (Conlan) and Katie (Taylor), it’s really brilliant to be in their company.”

Criticism

While there was criticism the tournament even began given what was unfolding with the coronavirus, Irvine explained that he and his teammates were mostly shielded from events outside the boxing bubble as the Irish team coaches ensured their minds stayed focussed on the job at hand.

‘Control the controllables’ is a term favoured by Irish boxers and this was key at such a potentially unsettling time.

“I was just so focussed on the boxing, so I didn’t really see any news at the time,” said Irvine.

“The only people who were asking me if it was still happening was my family because I’d been off social media for five days leading up to it. As far as I was concerned, it was all straightforward: I was there to do a job and that was it.

“John (Conlan, coach) just told me that we were here to do a job and not to be reading too much into anything, but just focus on the boxing and nothing else.”

That focus resulted in Irvine’s best performance since qualifying for the Rio Games, if not ever.

He has matured physically and looked so much stronger and sharper than Szaka to score a shutout with a display that belied his nightmare 2019 when a thumb and then foot break kept him out of the ring.

“I was very happy with my performance,” he added.

“I think that maybe showed all of the frustration I’d been through over the past two years, so I was very happy with what I produced.

“I felt like a man in there – bigger and stronger. I said to Bernard (Dunne) after that I was able to push him back and that everything was coming along nicely.”

Irvine’s first bout back was a split decision loss to Botswana’s Mohammed Rajab in February when ring-rust clearly played a part, but just getting back in the ring and testing out his previous injuries made that outing feel like a victory.

“They were so important,” agreed.

“The thing was getting in and testing out my foot to see how it would hold up to everything so that gave me confidence. Even though I lost that day, I came out of the ring really happy because I knew it had held up and that stood me in good stead.”

Waiting game

On Tuesday, International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound revealed an official announcement to move the Tokyo Olympics to 2021 was imminent and this was confirmed later in the day so Irvine will have to play the waiting game, but he is safe in the knowledge that he will be boarding the flight to Japan next year.

The London qualifier is still at the quarter-final stage, but whether they finish up that weight category remains to be seen although Irvine’s teammates still have a lot of work to do to join him.

The Irish captain sympathises for his team and knows exactly how unsettling the postponement of the qualifier is for them, but he also sees the bigger picture and accepts they just have to wait until the world can get a grip on Covid-19 to bring life back to some form of normality in the midst of the current abnormal situation.

“I really don’t know what the story will be,” he admits.

“All I know is that I’m going to Tokyo and I’m over the moon with that.

“The team still need to focus on the (qualification) tournament. All I can hope for is that Tokyo will actually go ahead whenever it may be.

“We always train to peak at a certain time, so it’s hard for the rest of the team. It was all out of my control; all I could do was get in there and perform. I feel for the ones who didn’t get to box because it was a long enough wait anyway and we had been away for a week on a training camp. It’s hard to pick yourself up to go again.

“This virus is spreading like wildfire, so things will probably only get worse before they get better so time will tell.”

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