Saturday 23 September 2017

Vincent Hogan: 'Katie knows that, to an Irish audience, these coming weeks will define her in a way that five European and four World crowns never could'

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

So London climbs out of bed, pops some pain-killers and apologises if it can't remember your name. Danny Boyle put something in the city's drink and, well, all that steroidal Mardi Gras had to blur the collective memory. Sometimes the Olympics feels less about sport than a 'my house is bigger than yours' flexing of national muscle. After the space show of Beijing, we were told that Blighty would return some kind of fiscal savvy to the preliminaries. But Danny evidently talked them round.

No matter, the pageantry gives way to human stories now and, sitting in the vast barn that is the ExCel Arena yesterday, we were left suitably gape-mouthed as Katie Taylor was handed the equivalent of a live bat wrapped in Olympic ribbons.

In a draw overseen by OCI president Pat Hickey, Taylor's reward for being seeded No 1 of the women's lightweight boxers was a path mined with treacherous hardware. Her father Pete, as ever, met the news with that gently equivocal smile that radiates an inner wisdom of this business and rightly declared Katie's presence a short straw for those now destined to cross her path.

Pete has spent a great chapter of his life patiently explaining to people that his daughter doesn't devote her every waking hour to some gentle game of charades decided by pirouettes and smiles. Trouble is, familiarity has bred a certain ambivalence. People interpret her rampant success as a life spent in some kind of languid exhibition mode.

What they don't see is the blood and desperate repetition required in that converted boat house in Bray Harbour or the storied academy on the South Circular Road. They don't see the withdrawal of day after day from a limitless account of training boxes to be ticked.

To win a medal in London, Katie must now beat either Queen Underwood or Natasha Jonas next Monday week. She's never lost to either but the last time she fought Underwood, at the 2010 World Championships in Bridgetown, the American caught her with a shot that Taylor will never forget. The fuses in Katie's head almost blew and Underwood instinctively smelt blood.

Seven points down entering that final round, the American launched a furious assault and was suddenly one point up with 16 seconds remaining.

You can but imagine the thoughts that fly through a father's mind at such moments, but Pete Taylor watched his remarkable girl come through the crisis with three of the crispest scoring punches any pugilist could summon. Katie won the fight 18-16 and, afterwards, declared herself "lucky".

A boxer's training is conducted with the quiet knowledge that one punch can dismantle everything you know. That day in Barbados, Katie remembers spending maybe 20 seconds in an odd twilight zone where her body was just a tangle of uncoordinated messages. That she survived should tell us something about the steel behind that perfect smile.

She's fought and beaten Jonas (6-3) once but, in a sport so heavily dependent on subjective and often contentious scoring, a home boxer represents obvious danger.

So the girl we've all but trumpeted as our medal 'banker' at these Games suddenly faces a path laden with potential trouble. And as the London sky was illumined with patriotic flares last night and we watched Taylor carry our flag into a great blizzard of welcoming flashbulbs, you had to hope the sheer scale of the five-ringed circus won't faze her.

The last time an Irish girl came to Olympia with so much expectation pressing down on her, it proved too much. The memory remains vivid of Sonia O'Sullivan walking past us wearing her misery like ankle chains, a black rucksack on her back. She'd gone to Atlanta as a gold medal favourite and primed to right the wrongs we believed had been visited upon her by Chinese hands three years earlier in Stuttgart.

A few days before competition, some of us breezed along to the city's Reebok headquarters where, sitting on a high stool, Sonia looked like the cover-girl for a health magazine. She exuded something we mistook for easy confidence. But Sonia was in turmoil.

And her father, John, delivered maybe the sanest line of those Games with an observation that nobody had died. He was right, of course. But what coursed through us all felt like grief that evening. We'd been ambushed by our own presumption.

Nothing comes gift-wrapped at an Olympics and Katie Taylor knows it. Pete said yesterday that he welcomed the lop-sided draw, that at least it focused minds now. They've decided against retreating back to Bray for a few days and Katie has bunked in with Ireland's swimmers in the Olympic village. Village life can be noisy, but Pete reckons that maybe noise must be part of acclimatising now.

And, when you sit to dine in the same canteen as Usain Bolt and Roger Federer, maybe it's easier to feel inconspicuous and free.

In any event, boxing has never been mistaken for the marquee show of an Olympics. American money owns the Games and, so, NBC decides the stories that make prime-time news. In Atlanta, they refused to show boxing live because women, apparently, switched off. The TV moguls claimed to lose "up to 75pc of a female audience" the moment they switched to the boxing arena.

Not difficult then to imagine their disdain for women actually doing the dirty deed themselves.

Katie, though, will be fine in a world free of loud voices pushing cameras. She's been journeying to this place since Halloween of 2001 when, as a 15-year-old, she beat Alana Murphy from Belfast in the first women's bout ever held at the National Stadium. Since then, only the odd quirky judging decision has put any smudges on her record.

Pete said yesterday that Katie wasn't in London for a medal. She's here for gold. It was a lovely, defiant line that you pray he can keep recycling through the second week of August.

For Katie knows that, to an Irish audience, these coming weeks will define her in a way that five European and four World crowns never could. It shouldn't be that way and she may legitimately wonder about this country's grasp of reality.

But four and a half million hearts will beat as hers when she next steps into the ExCel. No pressure.

Irish Independent

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