Gentleman John McNally

Belfast boxer who became Northern Ireland's first Olympic medallist back in 1952, writes Barry Flynn

John McNally's place among the immortals of Northern Irish sport was assured on August 2, 1952. That afternoon the Belfast man claimed the bantamweight silver medal at the Helsinki Olympics. In doing so, he became the first man from Northern Ireland to win an Olympic medal, and the first from the island of Ireland to win a boxing medal at a modern day Olympic Games.

McNally's feat lit the flame on a glorious decade for Irish pugilism, and would inspire a further eight Belfast boxers to claim Olympic medals. Figures such as John Caldwell, Wayne McCullough and Paddy Barnes may be household names, but it was the achievement of John McNally that set the ball rolling in 1952.

Born in 1932, in Cinnamond Street in Belfast's Pound Loney area, McNally first acquired a taste for the boxing game as a juvenile with the Immaculata club. The Pound Loney district was a myriad of mill streets off the lower Falls Road, which has now virtually disappeared from the city’s landscape. Its toughness and community spirit were renowned, and it was a perfect breeding ground for excellent fighters.

McNally's natural talent in the ring began to tell and by 1951 he had progressed further to claim the Ulster and Irish junior flyweight crowns. This put him in the running for a place in the Irish Olympic team, and the following year he duly won the Irish senior bantamweight crown and was picked for Helsinki.

For a young man who had held an ambition to travel Europe, the Olympic Games were for McNally a world away from the hardships of post-war Belfast - a city which was still recovering from the devastations of the Belfast Blitz.

Fortune was on McNally's side, however, as he was awarded a bye in the opening round of the bantamweight competition. In his first bout, he was a unanimous winner over Alejandro Ortuosto from the Philippines. Next up was the quarterfinal, where the experienced and fancied Italian Vincent Dall Osso was waiting for the Belfast boy.

While McNally was not fancied to progress, the Irishman was at the top of his game: Dall Osso was out pointed convincingly as McNally used his left jab effectively to swing a unanimous decision from the judges.

The semi-final saw McNally go toe-to-toe with the tough Korean, Joen Kang. In the early part of the contest, McNally had to deal with some clever attacking from the Korean, but gradually began to assert himself and, with some clever defensive boxing, soon took command. Unfortunately the final was not to be, as McNally lost on a controversial decision to the local favourite, Finland's Pennti Hamalainen. As he recalled, there was great suspicion of a 'home-town' bias among the judges.

‘It was the last day of the Games and the host nation had not yet won a gold medal, so there was a lot of weight on the Finn’s shoulders to deliver. It came down to the three judges and the British judge gave it to me, while the American and the Austrian gave it to Hamalainen. I was devastated and in floods of tears because I was convinced that I had won the gold medal,’ McNally recalls.

‘After the ceremony, I came out of the ring and the official doctor took one look at my back - which had been shredded through rope burn - and ordered me to go to the dressing room to be tended to.

‘Once there, a medic took out a bottle of pure alcohol and told me to lie face down on a bench and warned me that the alcohol would sting my back badly. I recall there was a boxer lying meditating on the bench beside me preparing himself mentally for his own final bout, and he held out his hands for me to grip,’ he continues.

‘It really did hurt. I felt I was about to scream so I squeezed that boxer's hands very hard in a reaction to the pain. Only later did I come to realise that the man who offered to hold my hands that day was the legendary Floyd Patterson, future heavyweight champion of the world.’

Almost six decades after his Olympic dream was shattered, McNally is phlegmatic about the defeat. ‘My philosophy in life has always been to never look back in anger. In retrospect, the experience has stood me in good stead and helped me cope with adversity in later life,’ he remarks.

Given that the only athlete from either Britain or Ireland to claim a gold medal at the Helsinki Olympics was a horse named Foxhunter, ridden by Harry Llewellyn, McNally's silver was big news at home.

‘Eventually I took the Belfast train and I could not believe the numbers who were there to greet me. The crowds were so excited that they actually broke through the railings at the station to get to me - it was only then that I realised how significant an achievement it all had been,’ he admits.

In 1953, McNally went to the European Championships, which were held in Warsaw, and added a bronze medal to his Olympic silver. Later that year, he represented Europe in a tour of the United States and was made an honorary Golden Gloves champion, after he returned from the tour undefeated.

After going as far as he could in the amateur game, McNally joined the paid ranks in what he still feels was the greatest mistake of his career. ‘There are no friends in a professional boxing ring and all the enjoyment you get as an amateur vanishes,’ he explains.

When asked about the most important advice for any boxer, he recalls something that was said to him by an Egyptian competitor at the weigh-in for the 1952 Olympic Games. The Egyptian had been on the end of some insults from Iranian fighters in the queue, yet he refused to become involved in the petty insults. Instead he remained quiet and ignored the abuse.

McNally asked the Egyptian why he did not defend himself, and with a glance in McNally’s eyes, he responded: ‘Sir, I will do my talking in the ring and always remember this: when somebody has beaten you, take your hat off to them; when you beat somebody, take your hat off to them also - but make sure it fits your head when you put it back on.’

That gem of civility is something that has stuck with gentleman John McNally since 1952 - and you can tell.