Olympic hero Kenneth Egan: ‘I cursed the medal, I cursed the notoriety, the fame’

Beijing boxing silver-medallist reflects on his momentous journey travelled since 2008
Vincent Hogan

The medal cursed him and the medal saved him and maybe slipping through the cracks of Kenneth Egan’s Olympic story is a glimpse of where he might so easily have ended up today.

On Page 2 of his autobiography, Kenny Egan – My Story, you come upon a jarringly stark sentence. “Sometimes I wish Beijing never happened because it seems cheap to sell yourself for just a single piece of silver,” he writes.

The book, co-written with Ewan MacKenna, was first published in 2011, Egan still in the foothills of recovery from what was, effectively, a two-year bender. It doesn’t sugar-coat any aspects of his near-calamitous struggle to cope with the celebrity of coming home from the 2008 Olympic Games with a silver medal around his neck.

A decade later, perspective comes easily to Egan now. “I cursed the medal, I cursed the notoriety, the fame, all that came with the Olympic medal. It drove me further into obscurity if you like. But in hindsight, now that I’m sober and in a good place, that medal got me into recovery quicker.

“The way I drank when I came back from the Games was ferocious. It was party-time central. I just really, really abused the stuff. If I hadn’t won the medal, I might have been just gradually falling into that dark hole. I could have been in my forties by the time I decided I needed help and I might have been left with nothing.

“Whereas I went hard and fast. Two years after the Games, I got sober. I’ll be 11 years off it on August 13 and that beats any medal.”

Egan holds a coldly unromantic vision today of what he might easily have become. “I still get the shivers when I think about it,” he reflects now. “I was two years sober in 2012 and I was up in my local pub while the London Games were on, a picture of me with my medal up on the wall.

“And it really struck that if I’d kept drinking, I might have been there ten years later, nudging some young lad, pointing up at the picture and saying, ‘See that? That’s me up there. Any chance you could buy me a pint?’

“In other words, that would have been around now. How embarrassing would that be? The shame of it would have been awful. I’d probably be still living in the front bedroom of me mam’s at 40-odd years old. It would have been horrendous.” Instead, Egan finds himself happily immersed in these Tokyo Games, spending four days on the road last week with fellow Olympic medallists, Sonia O’Sullivan and Rob Heffernan, as they met team members’ families on behalf of the Olympic Federation of Ireland before settling into an RTÉ studio this morning alongside Andy Lee and Eric Donovan as a boxing pundit.

And he is, above all, thankful to be back in love with the Olympic ideal.

“Sport is very fickle,” he explains. “You can compete at the highest level only for a short period of time, but you’re on the planet a lot longer.

“Don’t get me wrong, sport is great and it’s fantastic to see kids getting involved at any level. But it can destroy you very quickly too if you let it. I said that to the lads (Olympic boxing team) out in Abbotstown when they were getting ready for Rio. ‘What does retirement look like for you?’ And they looked at me as if I had ten heads.

“The best team on paper ever to travel to an Olympics for us, but that castle just totally crumbled. You need to have a get-out clause, you need to have something else going on in your life because you’re not all going to be world champions or Olympic champions. What do you do when you step away? What happens to you? You have to have a Plan B.”

There’s such a dangerous fundamentalism to the energies of an Olympic cycle, that a sense of realism can very easily be lost.

For most of their lives, amateur boxers and rowers pursue their dreams in obscure, low-lit places. But reach an Olympics and, suddenly, the whole nation is claiming ownership.

“Being an Olympian is a strange experience because it’s only really every four years that the public and media really grab hold of this,” says Egan. “But, as Ronnie Delany once said, ‘Once an Olympian, always an Olympian!’ I suppose it’s going to be very different this time, the fact that it’s so restricted, that there are no big crowds, no fans, no family members allowed.

“But the seven boxers have been working together for the last four years, travelling around the world together in competition, so I’d imagine they’ll be trying to do exactly what we did in Beijing. In other words, treating this just like another competition.

“It’s the same size ring, the same scoring system, the same training camp requirements, so they’ve just got to keep it as simple as possible, stay in their little bubble.

“The first round of that first fight is what’s important. Get that under your belt in a positive manner and the rest will follow.”

Egan has few fears of a repeat of the judging scandal that so discredited the boxing tournament in Rio.

“Boxers can’t afford to be worrying about judges anyway,” he says. “They can’t be thinking, ‘Does this judge like me or not?’

“Olympic boxing needs to do itself justice at these Games, it needs to really prove that it has cleaned up its act. The eyes of the world are on it now, so the judges will be under pressure to mark it clean.

“Remember boxing was going to be thrown out of the Games after Rio. Thank God they didn’t, but they need to keep it honest now.”

In Beijing 13 years ago, the boxers’ entire itinerary was fine-tuned for excellence. They flew to China two weeks early to familiarise themselves with the athletes’ village before traveling on to Vladivostok for a ten-day sparring camp with the Russian team.

Every last detail was micro-managed by Gary Keegan, Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia, even though Keegan – Head of the High Performance programme – had bizarrely been overlooked for accreditation by the IABA.

It meant him staying in an apartment downtown, the boxers dropping in on a daily basis to see a man they knew had, literally, changed their lives.

“He was the spearhead, the brains of the whole thing,” reflects Egan now. “We’d go and visit him in his apartment and you could see from the expression on his face how hurt he was at not being in the village with us.”

Walsh was the people-person, the glue holding it all together; Antia the master tactician. “An amazing team,” as Egan remembers them.

For any Tokyo medal winners, the commotion generated at home will almost certainly take them by surprise. Because if Walsh always liked to refer to the athletes’ village as a ‘Fantasy Island’, it is a place that offers a degree of distance and, maybe, comfort too.

“It’s a dramatic turnaround,” Egan says of a homecoming as an Olympic medal winner. “You go from being anonymous to everyone wanting to know you.

“My da had to go home early from the (Beijing) Games because the media intrusion was just too much for my mother. The media probably felt they had a right to be there, party-time in the Egan household. But mam just knew that enough was enough, she ended up feeling that she was a stranger in her own house.

“I’d ring her most days and it was always just, ‘Jesus you’re flyin’, it’s getting busy here now!’ I thought that was great. There were no real camera-phones back then, so you didn’t really see much. I was only getting snippets of what was going on at home, the media attention that the housing estate was getting.

“So I found it surreal when I came home. I couldn’t really understand it. I’d come through that airport many a time with a medal, but this was something different. The whole country was behind that team. Looking back, it was pandemonium.”

Thirteen years later, only Antia remains of the Beijing boxing team now. But Egan is hopeful that the boxers can bring some home medals.

“I think two would be great,” he says. “Because it’s a young team and most of them could be in Paris again three years from now.”

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