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
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
‘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,’
‘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 Patte
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
gold medal at the Helsinki Olympics was a horse named Foxhunter,
ridden by Harry Llewellyn, McNally's silver was big news at
‘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.