Olympics 2016

Paddy Barnes leads Ireland hopefuls out in Rio as boxers chase major medal haul

Paddy Barnes with father Paddy and mother Eileen before departing to Rio
Paddy Barnes with father Paddy and mother Eileen before departing to Rio

Paddy Barnes is blessed with a mischievous sense of humour. Everything is fair game.

Prior to the opening ceremony at the London Olympics, the other boxers presented him with an umbrella, suggesting he could hold it over Katie Taylor's head in case it rained as she carried the Irish tricolour into the Olympic Stadium.

He declined that offer but he still grabbed the lime­light. He wrote on a sheet of paper 'Open for Sponsors @Paddyb_Ireland (twitter)' and held it up for the camera as he paraded around. As Ka­tie remarked later: "Paddy doesn't know the meaning of the word embarrassment."

Four years down the road there is no need for gimmicks. Barnes will officially be the centre of attention in the early hours of next Saturday morn­ing in Rio de Janeiro's famous Maracana Stadium, when he becomes the seventh Irish box­er to carrying the Irish tricol­our at the opening ceremony.

He will be following in the footsteps of Matt Flanagan (1928), Tony ‘Socks’ Byrne (1956), Jim McCourt (1968), Wayne McCullough (1988), Francie Barrett (1996) and Katie (2012).

There is a slight chance he could be in action in the ring less than 14 hours later - the draw for the boxing does not take place until Friday after­noon - although the double bronze medallist is likely to get a bye into the second round.

Barnes during a boxing test match in Dublin's National Stadium in July

Once he steps inside the ring he will become a history mak­er as the first Irish boxer to compete at three successive Olympic Games. And there's only one thing on his mind.

"It is massively important that I win the gold medal. I have dedicated my life to the sport. I can't say winning the gold would top off my career because I'm not going to finish boxing in Rio. But it would be fitting to win," he says.

Uniquely, Barnes lost to the same boxer in the semi-finals of the light-fly­weight category at both the Beijing and London Olympics.

For good measure, his Chi­nese nemesis, Zou Shiming - who has turned pro - also beat him in the quar­ter-finals of the World Championships in Chi­cago in 2007.

But it was at this tour­nament that the then diminutive 20-year-old Belfast kid announced himself on the world stage.

His progress to the last eight in the 49kg category ensured that he became the first Irish boxer to qual­ify for the Beijing Olympics.

He wasn't even a member of the fledgling High Perfor­mance Unit at the time; indeed, he wasn't orig­inally select­ed to travel to the Windy City.

A prodigy of re­nowned Belfast coach Gerry Storey, even then he didn't lack confidence.

Exasperated by the excuse Barnes proffered for pulling out of a tournament earlier that year - "I was sick" - the then Irish coach Billy Walsh suggested that he might as well leave the team.

"But I am the team!" replied Barnes.

Not surprisingly, the pair had a classic love/hate relationship.

Barnes detests flying, yet it is a measure of his dedication that, together with his Belfast colleague Michael Conlan, he clocked up more than 30,000 air miles in the space of 13 weeks in 2015 in pursuit of a place at the Rio Olympics.

Trips to Guba in eastern Azerbaijan, Palermo, Konin (Poland), Almaty (Kazakhstan), Pescara (Italy), Milan and Mai­quetia (Venezuela), in which he boxed 34 rounds, culminated in Barnes winning the World Series of Boxing (WSB) title in the light flyweight category and a place at the Rio Olympics.

Box­ing-wise, Barnes has had a low profile since he missed the European Games, where Brendan Irvine qualified in the 49kg category at the World Championships in Doha.

The latter ultimately secured an Olympic spot in the heavier flyweight category.

But Paddy's absence hasn't fazed him in the slightest.

"I watched the World Cham­pionships and the European Olympic qualifier and, to be honest, in my eyes it will be man versus boys in Rio - and I'm obviously the man."

Were it not for his Olympic commitments, Barnes would have been in New York last Saturday night to watch his close pal Carl Frampton secure the WBA featherweight title.

The pair grew up together - but on opposite sides of the political divide in Belfast.

"The Holy Family club where I trained was only a quarter of a mile away from the Midlands Club where Carl was based. It was only a five-minute walk, but it was across the peace line. We fought four times, he won three – though one of them is debatable.

"I'm not in the least jealous of his successes. I'm proud that as a friend he has done so well."

Much has changed in Barnes' life since his Olympic debut - he is the proud father of a two-year-old daughter Eireann. He has exhibited admirable discipline to stay boxing in the 49kg (7st 10lb) weight category, though he is known to get a bit cranky before weigh-ins!

The wags in Belfast chris­tened him Paddy 'Bronze' after his exploits in Beijing and London.

But all that could change on Sunday, August 14, at the light fly final in the Rio Centre.