A brief history of Ireland in the Olympic Games

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Chris Kempson continues his Olympic Games countdown

THE two golden icons of Irish amateur boxing from Barcelona in 1992 and London 2012 are Michael Carruth who won the welterweight title in Barcelona and lightweight Katie Taylor who took the initial Olympic title in this weight category; the first occasion when women’s boxing was included in the Games programme of sports. However, there are many other Irish amateur boxing heroes to ponder over and please join me as we start our journey with them, commencing in Helsinki in 1952, already almost a life time away. For the Games and their boxing internationals in general, boxers from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, come together in a unified team for Ireland.

The 1952 Games remained in northern Europe, in Finland, and in Helsinki its capital. Ireland got its first Olympic medal when John McNally won silver at bantamweight, in a tight final encounter which went the way of the home star and favourite, Pentti Hamalainen by a 2-1 vote from the judges. Although, Finland, is a not a country normally flushed with Olympic boxing medal success, Hamalainen, confirmed his pedigree with a bronze medal at featherweight, four years later in Melbourne.

Australia in 1956 provided rich pickings for the Irish team, with four medals, one silver and three bronze. Welterweight, Freddie Tiedt was considered by many to be very unlucky to lose out in his final with Romania’s Nicolae Linca, who not for the first time in the tournament had a controversial decision go his way, GB’s late Nicky Gargano had been on the wrong end of a similar controversial decision in his semi-final encounter with Linca. The three bronze medals went to; John Caldwell at flyweight, Freddie Gilroy at bantamweight and Tony Byrne in the lightweight division. Caldwell and Gilroy were later to grace the paid ranks with much success and charisma.

Tony Byrne lost in his semi-final to West Germany’s (FRG), Harry Kurchat who in turn was beaten by GB’s astonishing Scot, Dick McTaggart, who also carried of the Val Barker Trophy to confirm his stylish superiority at these Games. John Caldwell, lost in his semi-final to Romania’s Mircea Dobrescu, who in turn was outpointed by GB’s teenage star, the late east ender, Terry Spinks in their Olympic final. Freddie Gilroy lost in his semi-final bout to the eventual gold medallist, an East German, Wolgang Behrendt representing the Unified German Team at these Games.

Southpaw, Gilroy went on to win British, Commonwealth and European bantamweight titles when punching for pay; while, as a professional, the orthodox Caldwell, won a British flyweight crown and even a World bantamweight title; they were two of Ireland’s best ever “little men” with and without the vest.

The next medal success came eight years later in 1964, with Jim McCourt gaining a bronze medal at lightweight. McCourt seemed to be very unfortunate to lose on points (3 judges to 2) to the Soviet Union’s Velikton Barannikov, the eventual silver medallist.

There was a long wait until Moscow in 1980 when Hughie Russell won a flyweight bronze having the misfortune to box the eventual gold medallist from Bulgaria, Petar Lesov. Southpaw, Russell had an extraordinary successful professional career, winning British flyweight and bantamweight championships. He joins, Caldwell and Gilroy as three of Ireland’s greatest boxing talents of all time.

Fast forward another twelve years and it became Wayne McCullough’s time and most certainly Dublin’s Michael Carruth’s too, winning silver and gold medals respectively.

Carruth an Irish Army soldier and one of three triplets, and from a family of ten, perhaps pulled off the greatest surprise of these Games, beating a Cuban, Juan Hernandez on points in their final, to become Ireland’s first ever Olympic ring gold medallist. He, like McCullough, had boxed in the Seoul Olympics, four years earlier, without any medal success. Carruth had a bye in the opening series, then he outscored Samoa’s Maselino Tuifao 11-2, to next meet Germany’s tough Andreas Otto, the Irish man taking this 35-22. In the semi-final. Thailand’s Arkham Chenglai was “bested” by 11-4 to set up a final showdown with the Cuban master, Hernandez. Carruth took this one 13-10 and with it Ireland’s first ever gold medal in the ring. Carruth later turned professional, but his paid career never really took off to any great extent, not like the way he had finished his ring career as an amateur.

Just a little time before Carruth’s gold medal triumph, Wayne McCullough, had made a very fine attempt for gold himself, but found Cuba’s great tactician, Joel Casamayor, a bit too much and lost on points in a very exciting and competitive bout. The Cuban taking the spoils and the gold medal by 16-8. McCullough later embarked on a successful professional career, winning the WBC world bantamweight championship.

Medals did not next come Ireland’s way until 2008, when, like the buses, three came along. The latest crop of Irish boxing heroes were, Paddy Barnes (bronze) in the light-flyweight division, the late, Darren Sutherland (also bronze) at middleweight and light-heavyweight, Kenny Egan who bagged a silver medal.

Barnes was beaten in his semi- final by China’s eventual gold medallist, the immensely talented Zou Shiming. Darren Sutherland met Team GB’s, James DeGale losing on points 3-10 to the eventual Olympic champion and now very much a professional world champion in his own right. Tragically , Darren was found dead in September 2009, in his flat in Bromley. In March 2012, an inquest recorded an open verdict. A very tragic end to the life of a fine boxer, who at the time of his death, was undefeated as a professional. Kenny Egan gave China’s Xiaoping Zhang a great run for his money in the Olympic final, just losing 7-11 to one of China’s latest crop of fine boxing talent.

So we roll onto London 2012, Paddy Barnes is once again a bronze medallist, but lightweight, the phenomenal Katie Taylor wins gold for Ireland, the first time that women’s boxing has been included in the Olympic Games timetable. John Joe Nevin wins silver in the bantamweight class and Michael Conlan gets a bronze at flyweight. Another huge return for such a small country but one with such a fine, boxing pedigree down the years.

Katie Taylor, we could be forgiven for expecting her to hit the gold standard, indeed she was by London 2012, a multi-World champion as well as a multi-European champion and multi-European Union champion. She did not disappoint and boxed three times for her gold medal success (she had a bye in the opening series). Taylor, from Bray in County Wicklow, commanded phenomenal support and was roared on in all her bouts by a huge travelling support from the Emerald Isle. She is arguably the best female boxer in the world and probably of all time

First up, was Team GB’s, Natasha Jonas who was outscored 26-15, then followed Tajikistan’s Mavzuna Chorieva beaten 17-9 to set up a final showdown with Russia’s tough Sofya Ochigava who was defeated by 10 points to 8 in a close final. But the victory was Taylor’s, the gold medal and the glory belonged rightly to her.

Turning now to the men, one had to feel sorry for Paddy Barnes, who had the misfortune to meet up once again with China’s reigning Olympic champion, Zou Shiming, his conqueror four years earlier. Barnes met a similar fate losing to Shiming in his semi-final, the great Chinese boxer going on to win his second Olympic gold medal. It was such a close contest with scores level at 15- 15 at the end of the contest, the Chinese getting the “nod” on count back by just one point 45-44, what a cruel way for Barnes to be eliminated.

Flyweight, Michael Conlan, won a bronze losing out (10-20) to the eventual gold medallist from Cuba, Robeisy Ramirez; while bantamweight John Joe Nevin reached the final only to be narrowly outpointed by Team GB’s very impressive Luke Campbell in a good tense contest.

Ireland will have five male boxers at the Rio Games, meanwhile Katie Taylor is hoping to qualify shortly, via the Women’s World Championships for a slot in Rio, where she would aim to defend her Olympic crown.

Ireland has done wonders in the past in the Olympic boxing ring, don’t bet against them carrying on their formidable medal success in Brazil later this summer.

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