Boxing: From fantasy island to a cold reality
Published 21/12/2012 | 05:00
On Tuesday, Darren O'Neill and Kenny Egan sparred in the High Performance gym on South Circular Road. Nobody paid much heed and, for O'Neill, the ring felt a private place, almost a private little paradise.
"Life in the old dogs yet," he chuckled to Egan afterwards as they touched gloves. Kenny's story is, maybe, the ultimate parable of how an Olympic life can crash to earth with a meteorite's violence.
That silver medal won in Beijing brought a lot of darkness before he reclaimed a spirit recognisable as his own.
Billy Walsh describes the business of coming home from Olympia as "stepping off Fantasy Island". For O'Neill, that step was maybe taken within hours of touching down in Dublin on August 13. That evening, he went for dinner with a few close friends to the Cat and Cage pub in Drumcondra.
While they dined, the 'RTE News' came on and the bulletin was dominated by Olympic homecomings. Katie Taylor's and Adam Nolan's in Bray; John Joe Nevin's in Mullingar; then Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan in Belfast.
O'Neill remembers all of a sudden feeling slightly cut adrift. Later, as he went to pay the bill, a couple by the bar enquired why he hadn't been on television too. "It was actually nice to be recognised," he recalls now.
"But I remember thinking, 'Jesus, I'm the only one not at a homecoming this evening!'"
The following morning he awoke to a life jumbled like a dismantled watch on the floor. What to do? Where to go? The evenings were simple enough because, for a few weeks at least, there were parties and functions at which an Olympian's presence offered a string-piece of glamour.
In the evenings, you could feel like you existed on the very axis of the world. But the mornings? They were like speed cameras.
Mercifully, High Performance and the Institute of Sport had certain programmes in place, easing the boxers back into normality. But there's only so much others can do to debrief an Olympian. And, for O'Neill, the privilege of a Sunday night, carrying the Tricolour at London's Closing Ceremony, was to be replaced by the cold reality of unemployment.
A primary schoolteacher, he'd given up a temporary position in Donaghmede last Christmas to focus full-time on the Games. Darren hoped captaining Ireland's boxers at the greatest show on earth would, if anything, throw open the gates to all manner of opportunity. It didn't. Four months on, he's still looking for a job.
"I think that was maybe one of my biggest disappointments coming back," he says. "Throughout the years, mam and dad have always been adamant that I'd get a good education.
"I missed World Junior Championships and different things because of that, doing the Leaving Cert etc. I put in so much effort to hold down a full-time education and to come out with my degrees and post-grads and the lot and to be still competing at the elite level of sport wasn't easy.
"But I stepped out of the class last Christmas after nearly three years to train full-time for the Olympics. I had to because we were going to be out of the country so much. I had a rolling contract and hoped I'd get back in again, maybe at the start of October when I'd got my head right after the Games."
The early soundings were all positive too and he was encouraged to re-send a CV to his old school. But that was where the trail ran cold. No calls. No interviews. Nothing.
"I was left a little bit disillusioned by that because, pre-Games, there's support left, right and centre," he reflects. "But post-Games, people just don't want to know about it. It's as if they've nearly got what they want out of you and so, 'good luck'.
"You feel a bit unwanted or used nearly and that's very disheartening. I don't know what happened or why and, if you let it, you would get a little down. But it's not something I'm going to dwell on."
He took a diploma in sports psychology during his pre-Olympic training and now intends doing a research masters while he has the time. The support of the Sports Council remains critical to his survival, albeit his grant is about to be halved from 'podium' status (€40,000) to 'world-class'.
"I'm now on about one third of what I was on," O'Neill smiles. "So it's a strange kind of comedown."
Still, he is loath to overplay a sense of injustice for he understands how the country is awash with stories of pain, disconnect and unfairness. It's just difficult to rationalise how an Olympian, lauded as a role model for his captaincy of the boxers in London, is deemed surplus to Department of Education requirements.
"That's the difficult thing," he says. "You go from people saying all those nice things about you to feeling like you're not even qualified to step into a classroom anymore."
That said, being back in the ring at least feels good now. O'Neill has, maybe, a stone to shed between now and the Nationals in early February and, in the week Jason Quigley claimed middleweight gold at the European U-23 Championships, reclaiming a competitive focus is no great challenge.
He boxed an exhibition with Nolan in his home place, Paulstown, last weekend to celebrate the club's 40th anniversary and the two got talking after about being the boxers in London who didn't medal.
During the Games, Billy tried to lighten their load one day, slagging them: "Now remember lads, ye'll have to sit at the back of the plane." And, quick as a snake's strike, Adam responded: "Billy, at least we won a fight at the Olympics!"
Neither O'Neill nor Nolan are spring chickens in the context of a sport now churning out remarkable young talent. But they have boxed and won as Olympians. That is something.
O'Neill is pain-free too, having suffered complications with the extraction of two wisdom teeth. All was fine for the first few days after an operation carried out under general anaesthetic on November 1. But three days later, the pain settled in his head like a swinging anvil.
"I was just in absolute torture for the next two weeks with them," he reveals. "They didn't clot up properly and I got what is known as 'dry socket'. The nerve was left exposed and I was in excruciating pain."
He happened to tweet a description of the experience and a volunteer the boxers befriended at the ExCel Arena noticed. John Haughey just happened to be a dentist and invited him in for repair work. The dressings brought instant relief and, apart from a slightly numb tongue, all is well in his mouth again.
And, in a sense, it's nice to be thinking about weight and conditioning now, about re-chasing dreams. O'Neill was frustrated by the manner of his eviction from the London Games but, having had one taste of Olympia, he would dearly love another.
"It's difficult when you come home," he says. "Because you've a month off and that month is a killer. That Tuesday morning, I remember sitting in the house, all quiet. You're almost depressed. We talk about it as an Olympic hangover because you have all that structure in place and, suddenly, you have nothing. We were such a closely-knit team and were around each other for so long.
"I found it hard, personally, just to interact with people when I came back. For the first week or two, I found I was going out with other Olympians; people that I might have talked to once or twice over there. I don't know, it was as if they understood because they'd been there. Your family and friends didn't because they hadn't been.
"It's ridiculous, looking back. But I was snappy with people, without a shadow of a doubt.
"I think for all Olympians it's a time when friendships come under pressure and relationships crack. You'll find a lot of Olympians' relationships have broken down since because of that.
"It takes a few weeks to integrate back into normality, I suppose."
A man soon grows tired of zapping between 'Jeremy Kyle' and old re-runs of 'Top Gear' and O'Neill has welcomed a re-introduction to life under Walsh and Zaur Antia as "they don't take any prisoners".
Living in Whitehall, he also has free access to the gym in DCU and, for all the frustration of finding himself among the jobless, there is the sense of another chapter opening.
"Since I was a youth, I wanted to go to the Olympic Games" he smiles. "That's all I ever wanted to do. And I suppose the one thing I now realise is that everybody loves you before the Games. But, afterwards, you're kind of pushed into the background and forgotten about a little.
"So I've kind of realised I need to start looking out for myself a little more. Anything I do from now on has to be with an eye on the future. I realise more than ever now that elite sport is a short life-span and everything has to be planned with an end in sight.
"That said, the Olympics is an incredible experience and I'd love to go do it again in Rio."
So entering 2013, how would Darren O'Neill describe himself? Disillusioned? Frustrated?
"I think I'm both at times," he replies candidly. "I can be a little bit anxious, a little bit annoyed. But, if there was one word I'd use to describe myself, I'd probably choose 'aware'."