How young Cuban coach gave Ireland Olympic boxing glory in Barcelona

The role Nicolás Cruz Hernandez played in that historic breakthrough has become a nearly-forgotten footnote

Nicolás Hernandez Cruz revolutionised training© SPORTSFILE

Cruz and Carruth at homecoming from Barcelona© SPORTSFILE

Nicolás Hernandez in Irish team uniform© SPORTSFILE

Michael Carruth celebrates winning gold© AFP via Getty Images

Sean McGoldrickSunday World

Monday, August 8, was the 30th anniversary of a seminal day in Irish sport.

Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough won Olympic gold and silver medals within 40 minutes of each other at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

At the previous six Olympic Games Ireland had won two bronze medals in boxing. In Barcelona only Cuba, Germany and the United States finished ahead of Ireland in the boxing medals table.

Carruth, whose late father Austin was in his corner, remains the only Irish male boxer to win an Olympic title.

The role a then young Cuban boxing coach Nicolás Cruz Hernandez played in that historic breakthrough has become a nearly-forgotten footnote in this coming-of-age story in Irish sport.

Nicolás Hernandez in Irish team uniform© SPORTSFILE

The long-time President of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association Felix Jones had a dream of seeing an Irish boxer win an Olympic title in his lifetime. He turned for help to Fidel Castro.

In 1974 Cuba announced themselves as the new powerhouse in amateur boxing when winning five gold medals at the inaugural World Championships in Havana.

Economically struggling due to a US trade embargo Cuba earned badly needed foreign currency by sending their boxing coaches abroad to work with national federations.

On 4th of May 1988, Nicolás Cruz Hernandez, the 31-year-old son of a tobacco farmer from the western Cuba province of Artemisa disembarked from an Aeroflot fight at Shannon Airport to take up his new role with the IABA.

“I had no say or input into the decision to come to Ireland. We just did whatever we were told,” he said.

He is diplomatic about the state of Irish boxing on the eve of the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

“Not properly organised,” he suggests. He discovered how primitive things were at the pre-Olympic training camp in the Staigue Ford House hotel near Castlecove in south-west Kerry.

Cruz and Carruth at homecoming from Barcelona© SPORTSFILE

Aside from a boxing ring and two punch bags equipment was scarce. But necessity is the mother of invention. Cruz relocated two tractor tyres and a truck axle from a nearby scrapyard. He turned the axle into a 16kg hammer. “By the end of the camp the boxers were flying,” Cruz admits.

He then encountered the kind of politics which bedevils Irish boxing.

Other countries who had employed Cuban coaches took them to Korea. Ireland inexplicably left Cruz at home because Cuba had boycotted the games. Ireland failed to win a medal in Seoul though an 18-year-old Belfast teenager Wayne McCullough earned rave reviews.

Cruz returned annually to Ireland during the next Olympic cycle and gradually revolutionised the amateur fight game in.

Ahead of the 1991 European Championships in Gothenburg he persuaded the IABA to hire a camcorder to allow him to record other fights and do video analysis of opponents.

He identified Dublin featherweight Paul Griffin as a potential medallist and adopted him as his special project.

“I made a deal with him. So long as he kept winning he would sleep in the bed in the room we shared, and I would sleep on the floor. As soon as he lost I would get the bed.”

Michael Carruth celebrates winning gold© AFP via Getty Images

Griffin ended up winning Ireland’s first gold medal at the European Championships for 42 years.

Ahead of the Barcelona Games Cruz prevailed upon the IABA to break with tradition and sent the squad to a training camp in Cottbus in East Germany. He got their backing to employ sports psychologist Felicity Heathcote.

A combination of the primitive living accommodation – 12 boxers shared one toilet – the absence of traditional Irish foods and possible home sickness fermented a revolt during the camp.

McCullough walked out and the trip was eventually cut short yet Cruz believes it was an invaluable learning experience with Carruth and McCullough sparring Thai and Nigerian fighters they went on to beat in Barcelona.

Soon after the boxers arrived in Barcelona they got in trouble for launching water balloons from the balcony of their apartment. Swimmer Michelle Smith slipped when hit by one and grazed her leg.

“We were called before the chef de mission Pat Hickey who threatened to send us home if there was any more problems. In the end the boxers were the only athletes to win medals so he had no choice but to jump on the bandwagon.”

In the Olympic semi-final McCullough’s North Korean opponent cracked his cheek-bone in three places and the Belfast fighter lost to Cuban Joel Casamayor in the bantamweight final.

In the welterweight decider Carruth faced another Cuban Juan Hernández who was unbeaten for three years. But Cruz devised a master tactical plan which Carruth implemented to a tee and secured the gold medal.

Even Cuban President Fidel Castro praised Cruz for his achievement. The dream ultimately turned sour with Cruz left homeless and unemployed after he defected to Ireland in 1996.

But for a few heady months 30 years ago, Nicolás Cruz Hernandez was one of the most feted black men in Irish history.

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