Amateur

A brief history of Britain’s Olympic gold medallists

Olympic gold medallists
Chris Kempson appraises all of GB's Olympic gold medallists

BOXERS representing Great Britain have won eighteen gold medals (16 for the men and two for the women) between 1908 and 2016. Over half the gold medal supply (nine in fact) was earned in the years 1908, 1920 and 1924, when very few countries supplied boxers to the Games, just four, 12 and 27 respectively for those particular years. After 1924, we had a long wait until Melbourne in 1956, then Mexico City in 1968, Sydney in 2000, Beijing in 2008 and of course our three great triumphs in London 2012 and Nicola Adams latest success in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Curiously enough, the boxing events in 1908 in London were held in the Autumn, a few months after the main athletic events had taken place in July. American boxers were not present in London. The host nation won all five golds as follows: Bantamweight – Henry Thomas, the only reigning ABA champion to land the ultimate prize; Dick Gunn at welterweight; Fred Grace at lightweight; John Douglas at middleweight and in the heavyweight division Albert Oldman. In St Louis in 1904, flyweight and welterweight were boxed for, but not in London in 1908, as those weight divisions were not adopted in England until 1920.

Turning now to Antwerp in 1920, we finished with two gold medals as more countries were plying their own trade now in the roped square. The legendary Henry William “Harry” Mallin won the first of his Olympic gold medals in the middleweight division. Heavyweight Ron Rawson got the other gold medal. Mallin was an extraordinary character, a London policeman, he only ever boxed as an amateur and was undefeated in over 300 contests. He won five consecutive ABA middleweight crowns from 1919-1923 and later became Team Manager for our Olympic Boxing Team in 1936 and also 1952.  He successfully defended his Olympic crown in Paris in 1924, surviving a quarter-final scare, which eventually led to the disqualification of home favourite, Roger Brousse, for biting the Englishman. GB’s other gold medallist in Paris 1924 was light-heavyweight Harry Mitchell. By now amateur boxing as an established Olympic event was rapidly gaining ground with twenty-seven countries entering boxers in these Games.

Clearly we will never see the likes of the late Harry Mallin ever again. A true blue amateur and a great exponent of the art of boxing, probably our greatest ever Olympic boxer, even in a far less competitive international scene than exists today. To win an Olympic crown and then to successfully defend it four years later is some feat in whatever era it is achieved in.

Some may genuinely question the ability and greatness or otherwise of those early Olympians and whether they could match up to Olympic champions of today. We will never know so we cannot make a sensible judgment or comparison. However what is not in doubt is that they were often national champions in their particular era and sometimes Olympic champions alike in that era; so they must have had something to put them a cut above the rest. I think we should leave it there. They were the best of their day, no one can deny them that honour. They surely belong to history and history should honour them for what they achieved and how they did it. They were and will be forever, Olympic Champions and there is no a greater honour than that.

Many gold-less Games followed for whatever reason and it was not until Melbourne in 1956 that Team GB delivered gold once more, with two medals going to the late Terry Spinks MBE in the flyweight division and Scotland’s greatest ever amateur boxer, Dick McTaggart MBE at lightweight, who was also ABA champion at that weight that year. McTaggart also won the coveted Val Barker award in Melbourne. He won a bronze medal in Rome in 1960  also at lightweight, losing a tight decision 3-2 which went in favour of Poland’s eventual gold medallist Kazimierz Pazdior. He was a winner of 610 of his 634 amateur bouts, a phenomenal competitor and a great, great stylist and exponent of the “noble art”. He excelled with four exceptional performances to take his gold in Melbourne. He had a third shot at the Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, when in the light-welterweight division he had the misfortune to meet in the third series Poland’s Jerzy Kukej, the eventual gold medallist. Kulej triumphed 4-1 over the ageing Scot. Kulej defended his crown successfully four years later. Dick never punched for pay, unlike his East End team mate Spinks who eventually became British featherweight champion.

East End kid, Terry Spinks, an 18–year-old ABA flyweight champion in 1956, shocked and rocked the amateur boxing world ‘Down Under’ with five classy displays which saw him take gold, England’s first gold medallist for over thirty-two years. 

What Terry could do, Dick certainly followed suit in doing. This was the Games readers will remember when the icy shivers of the “Cold War” appeared for the first time in real earnest and sporting tensions were revealed just like the political, military and economic tensions alongside them.

Mexico City in 1968 threw up perhaps another surprise Olympic champion in the late Chris Finnegan MBE, who took gold at middleweight and later had a very successful paid career, winning British, Commonwealth and European light-heavyweight titles. Finnegan boxed five times for his Olympic triumph, winning all of his five Mexico City contests on points and thoroughly deserved his golden triumph, even if it still surprised many. Finnegan had won the ABA middleweight crown in 1966, and was a losing finalist in 1967. In 1968 he lost on a cut eye in the London North West Divisional championships, hardly the credentials for a budding Olympic champion, but he was selected and the rest is Olympic history.

The late Chris Finnegan was Britain’s last Olympic champion until Audley Harrison strutted his stuff in Sydney in 2000.

Audley Harrison MBE became Britain’s first ever Olympic super-heavyweight champion ‘Down Under’ in 2000. Harrison was the first GB Olympic champion who was required to enter the World Zonal qualifying tournaments before the Olympics proper, this mechanism had been introduced for the Barcelona Games in 1992 for all aspiring entrants to the boxing tournament. It is still in place today. Harrison navigated the qualification process successfully, but it was not an easy path for him. In the lead-up to some past Games some boxers have had to take part in British box-offs or trials but this was a whole new ball game, you were up against world class performers before even getting to throw a punch in the Olympic ring itself. His career had certainly taken off when joining the famous Repton Boxing Club situated in Bethnal Green, where he came under the watchful eye of their legendary coach Tony Burns MBE under whom he won ABA super-heavyweight crowns in 1997 and 1998 and also a Commonwealth super-heavyweight title in 1998.

He boxed four times for his golden triumph, stopping a Russian opponent in his opening bout and then running up a fine trio of wide points victories to become the Olympic champion. Later Audley turned professional but his paid carer never matched the way his career in the amateur code had ended. Not for the first time, Olympic gold success had not heralded the way to real professional glory.

Eight years late middleweight James DeGale MBE was crowned Olympic champion in Beijing, the first Summer Games to take place in China. Once again there was some element of surprise in some quarters that he had reached the pinnacle of Olympic success. DeGale won an ABA middleweight title in 2005 and during his victorious run in Beijing he met the late Irishman Darren Sutherland. The two had met before in the finals of the 2007 and 2008 EU Championships, with each time Sutherland taking gold and the Dale Youth ABC man silver. However, James turned the tables in Beijing, outscoring Sutherland, who finished with a bronze medal, with his opponent taking gold on this occasion. DeGale later had a successful paid career becoming the IBF super-middleweight champion twice between 2015 and 2018, making him the first man from Team GB to win an Olympic gold and a world professional title.

London 2012 so far is Team GB’s most successful gold medal triumph with three gold medals won on home soil, two for the men and one for the women, which was the first ever boxing gold medal to be claimed in the history of the Games by a woman boxer.

Bantamweight gold was won by Luke Campbell, who had a very successful amateur career, including winning a gold at the European championships in 2008. He is still making good headway now punching for pay.

Anthony Joshua from Finchley ABC became GB’s second Olympic super–heavyweight champion. Joshua had earlier won ABA super-heavyweight crowns in 2010 and 2011 and also a GB title in 2010. He had a tough Games but came through to triumph in the final on “count back” (after a tied 18-18 final verdict) over his very experienced and ultimately very disconsolate Italian opponent, defending Olympic champion Roberto Cammarelle. Winning and losing margins are often very tight and this final was certainly a very tight one to call, but Joshua got it and has not looked back ever since. At present he stands as a two-time unified world heavyweight champion.

During the late afternoon of Thursday August 9 2012, Olympic boxing history was made when Nicola Adams MBE, a flyweight, from Leeds became the first female to win an Olympic gold medal in the ring. At London 2012 women’s boxing was included in the Games programme for the first time. The very talented Adams was roared on by thousands of excited fans. Adams did not disappoint in Rio and successfully defended her Olympic title, outscoring France’s Sarah Ourahmoune (3-0) in her 2016 Olympic final to become the first female boxer in history to successfully defend her title and the first GB boxer to successfully defend the Olympic crown since Harry Mallin in 1924.

Subsequently Adams went on to have a short but nonetheless successful professional ring career. She retired – due to problems with her eyesight – in November 2019 with a record of 5 victories and one draw. During her paid career she won the vacant WBO female Interim flyweight crown, this was subsequently elevated to regular world WBO female flyweight champion and the draw against Mexico’s Maria Salinas in this contest proved to be her “ring goodbye”. She was without doubt Britain’s greatest ever female boxer and certainly the hardest of all acts to follow. Will we ever see her like again? I very much doubt that we will.

Tokyo 2020 has been deferred to 2021 because of the world coronavirus pandemic but there could well be more GB gold medal success in Japan next year.

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