Why fighters are Ireland's best hopes of a medal from Beijing
Published 09/08/2008 | 09:01
The five-man Irish boxing team arrived in the Olympic village on Monday. Each contestant wants to bring home gold.
Fresh from their training camp in Vladivostok in Russia, the Irish squad have their eyes set on Friday's events in the Grand Ballroom of the Asia Hotel in Beijing. That'll be the weigh-in and the draw for the 11 weight categories in this year's Olympic Games.
If they fail to receive a bye, Irish captain Ken Egan and Darren Sutherland could be in action on Saturday in the Workers Indoor Arena as the initial heats of both light-heavyweight and middleweight divisions are due to begin that day.
Egan (Neilstown) and Sutherland (St Saviours OBA) are the Dubliners in the five-man squad that includes John Joe Joyce (St Michael's Athy), John Joe Nevin (Cavan BC) and Paddy Barnes (Holy Family Belfast).
Apart from the possibility of getting a bye, the draws could well be crucial to our boxers coming home with a medal.
Dominic O'Rouke, President of the IABA, says, "If they get on the right side of the draw you could well see some medals. It could be any of the five."
In their pre-tournament Russian training camp, the Irish boxers sparred with members of Russia's extensive Olympic team. "The lads held their own," says Ireland Head Coach Billy Walsh. "It was a very intense training camp and will stand to the youngest members of our squad."
For the oldest members, Egan (26) and Sutherland (26), who has ambitions to join the professional ranks, the upcoming bouts in Beijing represent their last chance of achieving their Olympic dream.
Like all of the 286 boxers in the competition, Sutherland is acutely aware of the vagaries of the random nature of the open draw.
"You could possibly beat nine of 10 of your opponents but be drawn against your bogeyman in the first round," he explained before he left for Beijing.
But such concerns are not allowed to interfere with his preparation.
"We're going to give this our best," he says. "We're going to be strong and come home successful."
Paddy Barnes qualified for the Olympics last year at the World Championships in Chicago. John Joe Nevin became our second qualifier when he punched his way to gold, beating a Ukranian in the semi-final and a Moldovan in the final, at a tournament in Italy at the end of February.
Our other three hopefuls had to wait until April, and the final qualification tournament in Greece, before booking their tickets for China.
In what he describes as "the turning point of my whole boxing career", Egan clinched his place on the Olympic team by beating a German fighter by 10 points in the semi-final. Now he wants Olympic gold.
He's invested too much blood, sweat and, who knows, maybe some tears in getting to where he is today. Egan has been Irish national champion for eight years in a row. The disappointment of missing out on a chance to represent Ireland at the last Olympic Games has driven him to this crucial stage in his career.
"I'm good to go," Kenny told me before heading East. "I'm in super nick and my self-belief is sky-high."
Currently ranked sixth in the world, Egan knows he's better than most of the contestants in his weight division. He also knows it's all about performance on the day.
"I have to bring my A game to the table," he insists. "But since the High Performance programme started, I've been training like a professional."
In a sport where top fitness levels and supreme skill are sometimes not quite sufficient to ensure victory, a positive mental attitude can make all the difference. Kenny has received advice and support from Ireland's boxing gold medallist Michael Caruth and golfer Padraig Harrington.
"I'm happy with the preparations," he reveals as he works to deliver on the promise his coach Zauri Antia believes is good enough to win gold.
Darren Sutherland, a sports science student at DCU, says, "I love boxing, and being competitive. I love putting myself on the line."
He analyses his situation and declares, "It's about getting back to seizing the moment and realising that I'm doing something that I love. Right now I'm so close."
Prior to clinching his seat on the plane to China, Darren summed up his life as an Olympic hopeful. "I've been on a journey," he told me.
"Something went off in my head and I went, 'To hell with all of this pressure. Forget about it.' I've addressed issues that were weighing me down and I feel like the way I have when I started as a kid. Now it's easy."
As we approach the moment of truth, Ireland's dynamic High Performance Director Gary Keegan is optimistic.
"Unlike the professionals, amateur boxing is very quick and fast. The standard is really high and unless you're a bit more scientific about how you approach preparation you're going to be left behind," he says.
"We believe that, physically, we can compete with any team in the world."