The room above Aughrim Street Sports Hall has the ingrained smell of sweat that no amount of scrubbing can remove. It is embedded in the heavy bags that line one side of the room and in the boxing ring that is hoisted into the roof above us.
On the walls are pictures of boxers from Ireland, Ukraine, Russia and many other countries from across Eastern Europe and beyond.
The towering Irish international heavyweight boxer Kirill Afanasev, who has Russian parents, trains here. But the centre, located in Dublin 7, also welcomes everyone from five-year-old novices to 60-year-old veterans.
I’m talking to Igor Khmil, the slim bearded founder of Smithfield Boxing Club, set up in 2008.
Khmil came to Ireland in 2001 from Ukraine and quickly established himself on the Irish boxing scene as a brilliant boxer known for his tactical counterpunching style. He represented Ukraine as a lightweight boxer and came close to participating at the Olympics.
“I breathed a lot of air with good ones,” Khmil says. “Being a Ukrainian champion wasn’t so bad, but I didn’t really get where I wanted to go. It was a very high standard, but I got a lot out of boxing.”
As he got older – he’s 44 now – Khmil’s focus turned to training boxers. And drawing on his connections in Ukraine, he helped arrange about ten trips to Ukraine for Irish national and youth boxing squads over the years.
Jason Quigley and Ray Moylette, both of whom would go on to turn professional, were among the boxers who joined him on these trips. The Irish boxers were popular visitors to training camps in Ukraine. “Ukrainians are a very European people,” Khmil said. “All our boxers who meet the Irish say they are so smiley. There are a lot of similarities in our histories and in our personalities.
“We’re a bit like the Irish as well in that when things are good, maybe we’re not the best. But when things are bad or very bad, we stand together relentlessly.”
Before Covid-19, Khmil also ran Boxfest in Smithfield, an event that pitted the best Irish boxers against national standard competition from Ukraine, Russia, Norway, and Eastern Europe.
He has given a lot to promoting the value of sport in Ireland. He was a boxing coach in the Midlands Prison in Portlaoise for a number of years, and his day job is with Dublin City Council where he is a sports officer in the inner city, working with everyone from children to the elderly.
Khmil plays down his achievements. He took convincing to tell his story, as he doesn’t want to talk about himself, and boxing. His mind is elsewhere, on other more frightening and important things.
Igor Khmil is one of more than 3,000 Ukrainians living in Ireland. He arrived in his early twenties in 2001 intending to move to England to work but ended up staying here. He has a daughter born in Ireland, who has visited his family in Ukraine many times. His daughter cried watching Russia invade, as did Khmil, who said he was in a “state of shock” at first.
Khmil’s parents live in a small city in the west of Ukraine. It is an area currently away from the fighting. But that could change. Not all of his friends and family are as fortunate. Khmil could not sleep thinking about them.
On day three of the invasion, Khmil set up a WhatsApp group, and asked some of his friends from boxing and Dublin City Council to join it. Quickly the group grew to include Olympic gold winner Kellie Harrington, Olympic silver medallist Kenny Egan, and former world champion Andy Lee. There were also people from business who have boxed like solicitor Gary Daly in the group as well as colleagues from DCC who all wanted to help their friend and his country. They all knew how much he had given to his new home in Dublin not just to elite athletes, but to thousands of children.
On Wednesday night they all held a meeting and set up a new group called United for Ukraine to raise money for international charities helping ordinary people there. “We are thinking about a boxing tournament, virtual events, multi-sport events,” Khmil said. “There is great support to do something and raise money for charities in Ukraine.
“I am thinking about where my expertise is,” Khmil added. “If I can unite the people I know from sport and other areas then we can do something collectively to support Ukraine.”
Khmil said United for Ukraine’s plans were still being worked on, but he hoped to be able to launch it soon.
Igor Khmil said that Ukrainians in Ireland were torn watching what was happening to their country from afar. “You feel less of a man seeing the guys who you trained with (in boxing join the army),” he said. Ukrainian boxing champions Wladimir Klitchko, Oleksandr Usyk, and Vasiliy Lomachenko have all joined the war effort in Ukraine, as have many other sports people.
Khmil is a boxer, but he is not an aggressive person. “There is anger and there is sadness. I wouldn’t go and bang the doors of the Russian ambassador down, as much as I want to,” Khmil said. “A lot of my friends and I are questioning, are we doing enough? It is a state of shock and mixed emotions. I can’t shoot someone. If I ended up in that situation…what people need to understand is that our people, even (Vitali) Klitschko (the Mayor of Kyiv, and a former heavyweight boxing world champion) are very soft people underneath. They don’t want to be here. The same with the President (Volodymyr Zelensky). Everyone has to do what they can in this extreme situation.
“At the start of our national anthem there is a line that translates as: ‘We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom.’ Ukrainians would rather starve than not be free. That is a big difference. If you look at the Orange Revolution (2004-2005) and the (Maidan) Revolution in 2014. Our people were prepared to go up against the snipers covered only by wooden shields. That is how much freedom means to us.”
He said that what people do to protect freedom in Ukraine was an individual choice. “It is for each person to act in this situation,” he said. “It is a test for each human on the planet.”
Khmil said it was good that Ireland was opening its arms to Ukrainian refugees, but he is not sure how many will come: “I offered to help some of my friends come here. They said: ‘We’re going nowhere.’
“They’ve moved their wives and families to the suburbs where they think they will be safer. The unity that is in Ukraine has never been seen before. People are standing in front of tanks. It is like that.”
Khmil’s native language is Ukrainian, but like most people there he can also speak Russian. This allows him to watch Russian television online and read their newspapers. “I can see how much they’ve been brainwashed and how the truth has been very exaggerated or twisted,” he said.
I ask Khmil if he thinks Ireland should give military support to Ukraine, rather than non-lethal support. Khmil thinks about it, then he replies. “It is not for me to say,” he said. “All I would ask is that decision makers put themselves for a moment in the shoes of ordinary Ukrainian citizens. Before they make a decision, they should visualise this happening to Ireland. Imagine the bombardment of civilian places. Put yourselves in that position and then decide. There is a collective responsibility in all Europeans to do something, if we want to be called Europeans.”
Half way through our interview, Igor Khmil is talking about his cousin Lesia. She is living in Kyiv and works for an extreme response unit set up to deal with things like storms and floods. Now, she is now trying to protect civilians under attack. When I ask him how to spell her name, the interview stops. There is the raw pain of a man thinking about someone he loves in a city over 3,000 kilometres away. It begins again five minutes later. “Lesia is so composed,” Khmil said. “She doesn’t want to go anywhere. When you see a seven months pregnant woman staying cool under bombardment…You have to roll up your sleeves and do what you can. That is the only way you can wake up without feeling you have let them down.”