Vincent Hogan: The outsider looks back into the ring
Gary Keegan’s vision and commitment culminated in bittersweet success in Beijing as he watched crowning glory from shadows
He was in the ExCel Arena last night, a face in the crowd. Somewhere out there in the great bank of bleachers, sitting as he'd sat in Beijing. With the paying customers.
Gary Keegan hoped maybe to snatch a cup of tea with Billy Walsh in the Westfield Shopping Centre today before flying home. He's visited the Games twice already this week, invited by the canoeing and triathlon people. But his work, as director of the Institute of Sport, is essentially at home. And Keegan is not an Olympian. Technically, he never has been.
That much is old news.
Four years have passed since he sat in that fourth floor Chaoyang apartment, getting daily visits from the boxers, their crisp tracksuits drawing stares as they'd slip in by the tatty arcade of shops, crossing a courtyard to the lift. When they went home with their medals, Keegan wrestled with "second thoughts".
He'd signed up to a new role with the Institute the previous November, but he was now leaving behind a momentously personal project.
"It was extremely difficult," he says. "We'd gone through so much together, these were all my friends. I thought maybe we could kick on from there. I was so thrilled and proud of what we'd achieved. We'd answered a lot of questions about ourselves. But I also wanted a new challenge." After a time, he closed his eyes and jumped.
He smiles now as he recalls pacing the beach in Bettystown in November of '02, having been invited to create boxing's blueprint for the future. Would he take the job? How could he possibly create the vision he wanted when set against the broad context of Irish sport? A context, largely, of compromise.
Not long after accepting the role, he made a presentation to the Central Council of the IABA in the National Stadium, articulating a mission statement of having Irish boxers consistently take their place on international podiums. And Keegan sensed an odd chemistry in the room. "I felt people were very uncomfortable with it," he remembers.
"It was as if they were saying, 'Who do you think you are?'."
That he wasn't accredited for Beijing six years later tells you how certain minds never quite opened to Gary Keegan (pictured below). But it was his programme that jolted Irish boxing into the new world. His judgment that identified the men to oversee it.
The faces you see in an Irish corner at these Olympics are those of Walsh and Zaur Antia. A Wexford man and a Georgian. Both had been recruited by Keegan to the programme by March of '03. Both, he believes, are irreplaceable.
He was vaguely familiar with Billy through his role as secretary of the National Coaching Committee. Knew him as a man whose palpable love of boxing had sufficient purity to propel him back into a club gym as soon as he'd hung up his own gloves. Zaur was different. Zaur was a lottery win.
Keegan knew the technical expertise the programme needed would have to be imported. Probably from Cuba or Eastern Europe. Then Dan O'Connell, an international referee, got wind of Keegan's chase and told him about this guy in Georgia. Just one small problem. Zaur Antia spoke no English.
They flew him to Dublin and the formal interview, inevitably proved difficult. Next up, the practical. They put the interview table on the gym floor, five boxers in a ring, and invited each candidate essentially to carry out a training session. Within three minutes, Antia was their man.
"Zaur had them eating out of his hand," recalls Keegan. "He is, for me, the best technical coach in the world. I've not seen anyone that can match him."
Walsh, meanwhile, overcame candidates from New Zealand and the UK to be appointed head coach. Instantly, a certain energy was in place. Keegan describes Billy as one of his closest friends. They must, by necessity, operate a professional relationship today, but they retain the bond of men who travelled a monumental journey together.
"Billy, ultimately, is the glue that keeps the High Performance unit together," he says. "He's a great corner-man, a master tactician and he has this lovely, consistently light humour, even in the warm-up area, that puts the boxers at ease."
Keegan mentions Jim Moore too, "the guy who produced John Joe Nevin, who set up the pipeline that's brought through Joe Ward and Michael Conlan". The growing pains seem so far in the distance now. For maybe his first year in the job, Keegan frantically tried to get inside the great, relentlessly productive systems of amateur boxing in Europe. He peppered the French federation with so many emails, it bordered on harassment. Eventually, they relented.
In 2003, they took seven boxers to a training camp in Paris, immersed them in the professional way, then came home and drew a line in the sand. "This is what world-class athletes do," they said.
"The choice is yours." Soon after, they brought their six most experienced boxers to a training camp in Moscow. Running on snow-encrusted roads at 6.0am and training three times a day, the intensity was a culture shock. There were 13 months to the Athens Olympics. Too soon. So Beijing became the crock of gold at the end of their rainbow.
"It wasn't rocket science what we were doing," says Keegan. Irish boxing had a history of looking inward, preparation rooted in the past. An Irish team might get together for two weeks of squad training before an international against opponents training full-time.
The amateur game had progressed from three rounds of three minutes, to five rounds of two, to four rounds of two, without any reconcilable adjustment to Irish preparation.
"We were still training long and slow," recalls Keegan. They had to change that. They also had to, somehow, hot-house a culture of belief.
Sixteen months into the programme, he came up with the idea of the 'Wall of Honour' A 12 foot by 12 foot yellow square on the stadium wall into which they would print the names of medallists. Billy was uncomfortable.
"I don't like this!" he said.
"Why?" asked Keegan.
"Because we're way off achieving something like that."
"Doesn't matter, that's where we're trying to go."
As a compromise, they put up the names of Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough in that yellow square. Andy Lee soon followed. Then Katie Taylor. When John Joe Joyce then squeezed everything out of himself to qualify for Beijing, it was his very first question.
"When is my name going on the wall?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I've always hated that wall."
"My name isn't on it!"
The moment that wall became the focus, the programme essentially had its constitution. But there were endless setbacks, some of them crushing.
After the World Championships in Chicago in 2007, at which Paddy Barnes was the only Irish boxer to secure Olympic qualification, heavy shells began dropping from the sky. Within the IABA, many voices were raised about money "wasted" on a programme that delivered such flimsy returns.
Within the gym, Keegan, Walsh and Antia had identified exactly what was wrong. They'd over-dosed on instruction, become virtual carers for the boxers when what they now needed was empowerment. In terms of the programme, it amounted to a simple tweak. They held their nerve.
"When the s**t hit the fan, the only people who didn't question us were ourselves and the boxers," recalls Keegan of that time. "When you think about it, we had handed them the greatest excuse to just step away from us, to stop believing. But they didn't do that. For me, the boxers were the saving grace."
He misses the cut and thrust of it now for his job with the Institute is, essentially, to facilitate the cut and thrust of others. He's been involved closely with canoeist Eoin Rheinisch in recent months and shared his devastation at this week's disappointment.
For Keegan understands how Olympic dreams can so easily become a tyranny. "We cried in that gym," he says of his time with the boxers. "And, yet, you'd laugh your head off at the darkest moments too. I suppose I feel attached and detached now, wanting to be there, yet feeling sometimes like an outsider. It's a very, very strange feeling."
Beijing was, perhaps, the most scarring, yet liberating experience of his life. "I was trying to understand my own emotions," he recalls now.
"My memory of it is quite awful and, at the same time, quite brilliant. Personally and professionally, it was extremely difficult. Because my dream was to go to the Olympic Games too. In '96, I'd been involved in the final training camp for Atlanta and I remember Gussy Farrell saying to me, 'It won't be long before you get your turn...'
"So even without the programme, I felt I had a chance of going to an Olympics. But in Beijing my attitude was, 'It's not about me'. And maybe the team galvanised a little around my absence. And a leader, Billy Walsh, certainly stepped up to the plate."
He came home with four simple mementoes of those Games: four vests signed by the boxers. A fifth, signed by Nevin, someone pilfered from his bag. Keegan had no kit of course because, officially, he had no status.
But, in the living-room of his Bettystown home now, hangs a single picture. It is of the three medallists in China: Kenny Egan, Darren Sutherland and Paddy Barnes. The picture came through his letter-box maybe 11 months after Beijing, sent by Dr Jim Ryan.
In a great web of back-room people upon whom the responsibility of preparing that team for Beijing had fallen, Ryan's was a frank and seemingly unsentimental presence. "A black and white guy who'd give it to you straight," is Keegan's description.
There were some words written on the back of the picture which Keegan did not, initially, recognise.
But one night, alone in that fourth-floor apartment somewhere in Beijing, he'd got thinking of all those people in the background, who'd contributed so much but been left at home in Ireland. And Keegan decided to send them a long text, essentially a letter of thanks.
Those were the exact words he found himself reading now on the back of this Olympic picture. Ryan had kept his text. "When it came through the door, I found it very difficult to keep my emotions in check," he says now. "It was such a beautiful thing to send me. I'll never forget it."
The transcription was timed and dated. August 23, 2008, 2.15am.