Hugh Russell - Olympic Bronze Medallist

Like the rest of us, Hugh Russell will be watching. When the Tokyo Olympics ignite later this year, the Belfast man will be looking on, riveted by the action, moved by the tears that flow every time an athlete stands on the podium – their dream finally realised.

But unlike the rest of us, Russell knows exactly how they feel.

Four decades have now passed since the Belfast boxer won flyweight bronze at the 1980 Moscow Games and as seismic as it was at the time, it took years, maybe even decades, for him to fully understand its impact.

“I was 61 last week and everybody I look at in the Olympics now is a kid,” he says. “When you see the medal put on their neck, they don’t know how much it’s going to change their lives. It’ll stand by them all their lives. It took a long, long time to realise that.”

The medal is framed, hanging behind a pane of glass and mounted on the wall of his home. When Russell has new visitors it’s often the first thing they’ll ask about. Most have never seen an Olympic medal, even fewer have touched one.  

The seeds of his success were sown at the age of nine, when Russell first took up boxing. For all that Belfast was a tough place to grow up in the 1970s, he had immense fortune to be from a city where sporting icons were plentiful, and where an inspirational coach, Gerry Storey, made a habit of turning young men into champions.

Russell was All-Ireland four-stone champion at an early age, and throughout his teens he was so gifted with talent and so committed to his craft that success seemed almost inevitable. He was only 18 when he won flyweight bronze at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada, an experience that would stand to him when he arrived in Moscow, two years later, for the Olympics.

“The Commonwealth Games had the same setup with the village and they called that the friendly games because everybody was walking around, talking, but the Olympics was totally different,” he says. “Everyone was there to do one thing, and that’s to win.”

Early in 1980 his participation was in doubt after Russell got knocked out by Gerry Hawkins at the national championships, which he blamed on his move down to light flyweight where he had struggled repeatedly to make weight, stepping into the ring a shadow of his former self.

After that he reverted back to flyweight, and got the nod over national champion Dave McCauley due to his head-to-head record against him. Russell was only 20 going to Moscow, but if you’re good enough in sport you’re usually old enough, and in Storey he had a trainer with world-class credentials.

“He was a very, very intelligent man who was way ahead of his time,” says Russell. “In training he had us doing circuit stuff with tennis balls and people laughed at that back then. Then 10 years later we bring in a Cuban coach and he does the exact same thing and people thought our Cuban coach is a genius. He probably was, but it was the same thing Gerry was doing.”

The Irish team’s participation hung in the balance for much of the year and in the end a decision was taken by the Irish government to support the US-led boycott. However, the Olympic Council of Ireland forged ahead with plans to send a team and Russell was among the 47 competitors who eventually touched down in Moscow.

“I was 20 and a young 20 at that so I didn’t get involved in politics at all,” he says. “We were told we were invited Yo Ryon-Sik through a letter, as soon as that dropped through the door I had worked towards that date.”

His flyweight competition took place over the second week of the Games and he passed his first tests with flying colours, beating both Iraqi and Tanzanian fighters 5-0 to advance to the quarter-final. There he met North Korea’s Yo Ryon-Sik and the stakes were high, with the winner guaranteed an Olympic medal.

“You say the same prayers before every fight,” he says. “You ask God ‘just let me win this one’ and then you do the same again, asking him 24 hours later. But it gets harder and harder, the tunnel starts getting smaller.”

He remembers Ryon-Sik as a “long, rangy fighter” and Storey had done his research, watching tapes of his previous fights and giving Russell key pointers.

“I don’t think I boxed two fights the same way, you had to have tactics. It didn’t matter if it was nice to watch, the main objective was to get your hand put up.”

In the end, it was Russell’s hand that was hoisted in the air as he pulled through 3-2, guaranteeing Ireland its first boxing medal since Jim McCourt’s bronze in Tokyo 16 years earlier. But with the semi-final on the horizon, there was no time to celebrate.

“I always remember I came back and the mood was very flat. My heart was pumping and I was bouncing but the coach was saying: ‘We’re not finished yet, we’re not here to win bronze medals or silver medals.’ He wanted everyone to come away with gold.”

In the semi-final the dream finally came to an end as he met Bulgaria’s Peter Lessov, who after defeating Russell went on to win gold, stopping the Soviet star Viktor Miroshnichenko in the final. The loss hit Russell hard, but he soon took a step back and gained perspective.

“You’re 20 years old, you’re crying and it’s breaking your heart because your dream is finished,” he says. “It’s only after you realise people would swap anything just to be sitting there with a bronze medal around your neck (that you appreciate it).”

Moscow would prove life-changing in more ways than one.

With only a couple of days to spare before he travelled home, Russell went out to spend some of the roubles he had purchased upon arrival, aware that they could not be exchanged back. Looking for an expensive item he bought a Zenith camera and after he was settled back home following the Games he joined a camera club.

That led to a career in photography, and Russell has drawn wide acclaim for his work documenting the Troubles, among other historic events, for the Irish News.

“Little did I know when I bought that camera it’d be another chapter in my life that has me sitting where I’m sitting today.”

It was only when he was back in Belfast and heard stories of how the streets would clear ahead of his fights – everyone flocking inside to watch on TV – that he realised how a big a deal his Olympic exploits had been.

“I was getting recognised but as a kid it bounces off you,” he says. “I cherish the medal more now than I did when I came home with it.”

He has stayed committed to the sport throughout his life, occupying a position on the British Boxing Board of Control for the past 35 years following the end of his professional career, which saw him win a Lonsdale Belt, among many other accolades.

But of course the thing most will remember is that Olympic medal, and just as Russell was inspired by all the greats who came before him he takes great pride in seeing the exploits of the current generation.

“When the draw was made back then, we used to say I hope I don’t get the Cuban, the American, the Russian,” he says. “But now if you draw the Irish kid you wouldn’t be happy.”

For all that he achieved, in and out of the ring, that magical week in Moscow is still held in the very highest esteem.

“It holds a massive part in my life,” he says. “Out of everything you do, the Olympics is something people will always recall – being on that stage, fighting the best in the world.”

by Cathal Dennehy

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