Magic Moment of the Year: Kellie Harrington
Commanding the rapt attention of your people has historically proved a millstone around Irish necks at that quadrennial flag-waving extravaganza known as an Olympics.
Fear subsumes talent as the sheer scale of the Games settles around fragile ribcages, expectation suddenly becoming a terrible liability for athletes unused to such national commotion. The Olympics is a wreckers-yard for flustered champions, a high stage on which the vast majority become weighed down by inarticulate dread.
Kellie Harrington’s magic trick on August 8 last year was to defy that stereotype, to create the illusion that gold almost came easily, to summon the lie that she crossed the Olympic summit just humming a blithe and happy tune. Modern sport is crammed with palpably haunted personalities, of people tethered to the hamster wheel of daily rituals whose interaction with the outside world becomes the equivalent of something given under oath.
The tunnelled nature of what they do closes them to the rest of society. It islands them.
But the mid-summer Mardi Gras that came to decorate Portland Row in Dublin’s North inner-city spoke of a hero who – outwardly at least – somehow managed to side-step that psychological tyranny.
Harrington wasn’t so much immediately likeable as instantly loveable, embracing the idea of being number one Olympic lightweight seed with that early ‘Hakuna Matata’ declaration and a willingness to meet technical questions about her fights with an authentic “I haven’t got a clue, I don’t really know what happened in there!” grin.
Here was someone communicating almost messianic self-belief but avoiding allowing that belief to become contaminated with even a sliver of ego or high self-regard.
Almost daily TV interviews with her parents, Christy and Yvonne, made clear it wasn’t from the ground she’d absorbed that natural grace, and so, approaching the final day of action in Tokyo, she was already, indisputably, the nation’s darling.
But truth to tell, not many boxing pundits felt optimistic about her chances of beating Beatriz ‘The Beast’ Ferreira – her successor as world champion and a fighter unbeaten for two years – in that Olympic decider.
The Brazilian’s notoriously aggressive style had a record of quickly intimidating opponents. Although Harrington was careful to avoid that fate, she still lost that opening round to Ferreira on a 2-3 score.
Now the accepted wisdom of just about every boxing coach in Tokyo was that, with few exceptions, first-round winners invariably proved the ones whose hands were eventually raised.
But there was a kind of elemental shift in the second round, one prompting the normally reserved Zaur Antia to welcome Kellie back to her corner with the words “Good fight, good fight, tremendous!”
And round three became a celebration of Harrington’s glorious lack of convention, of the ability to switch on a whim from orthodox to southpaw, of what her club coach – Noel Burke – describes as “these really strange movements that you couldn’t teach”. Above all, maybe, it became a glimpse into that serene, rarified place where an athlete slips into a zone of virtual weightlessness.
For that final round, Kellie Anne Harrington looked like she could jab a butterfly into submission, such was the timing and seemingly easy precision with which her left hand kept landing on a chosen target.
Yes, Ferreira kept piling forward, but more as an uninvited guest pawing vainly at a shuttered window now, the realisation clearly dawning that she had simply come up against a better, purer boxer.
“There have been times in my career where people have said to me, ‘The whole country is behind you!’” Harrington said when it was over. “This time, I really, really feel the whole country is behind me. And you know people might say, ‘Oh that’s a pressure!’ You might feel like you have a big weight on your shoulders.
“But I actually really didn’t because I knew no matter what happened out here today, whether it was gold or silver, I’ve made myself proud, and I know I’ve made the people of Ireland proud.”
That she truly did in becoming only Ireland’s third Olympic boxing champion and, accordingly, securing the Irish Independent readers’ Magic Moment award.
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The curious thing about Gavin Bazunu’s rise to prominence in 2021 is that two enduring memories which proved he was no ordinary teenager came in matches that ultimately ended in Irish defeats.