Belfast boxer Brendan Irvine inspires generation as Ireland flag-bearer at Tokyo Olympic Games

Brendan Irvine and coach and friend Ralph McKay. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Andy Watters

BELFAST boxer Brendan Irvine will carry the tricolour and lead out the Ireland team alongside Kellie Harrington (ladies’ lightweight) at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games on Friday (12pm Irish time).

St Paul’s ABC flyweight Irvine follows in the footsteps of fellow Belfast fighters Wayne McCullough (a silver medallist at Barcelona in 1992), Jim McCourt (bronze in Tokyo in 1964) and Paddy Barnes (the flag-bearer at Rio 2016 who’d won bronze in Beijing four years’ earlier) in being chosen for the honour.

Ralph McKay, Irvine’s long-time coach and friend, took a break from the summer scheme at the St Paul’s gym in west Belfast where he is moulding the next generation of Brendan Irvine’s to explain how the club was “absolutely ecstatic” that one of their own was held in such high esteem.

“Words can’t describe how we all feel,” said McKay.

“Brendan worked so hard to get to one Olympics and now a second one and then being made Team Captain and now carrying the flag at the Opening Ceremony. It’s fantastic! He rang me yesterday and he was buzzing, he was over the moon… He just couldn’t believe it.

“It’s great news for Brendan and everyone at the club and he’s overwhelmed to get that recognition. It’s hard to get the Olympics and get on the team, it’s even harder to carry the flag and represent your country like Brendan will do.”

McKay has known Irvine, AKA ‘the Wee Rooster’, since he “first put his gloves on” at St Paul’s as a youngster. It didn’t take long for him to become obsessed with the noble art and his hard work and dedication have paid off with medals at the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships.

“He was always one for going down with us to the High Performance in Dublin and watching everything that was going on Saturday mornings,” said McKay.

“We were down with the likes of Decky Milligan, Dan McShane and James Tennyson and if you missed picking Brendan up on a Saturday morning he would have cracked up! He always wanted to be down there, he was watching the sparring and taking in what Billy Walsh (coach) and the rest of them were saying and how they were operating.

“It was always his dream to get to the Olympics and he’s fit, he’s ready and he showed how much he wanted it in the qualifying.

“If he has that same attitude in Tokyo and gives it his best he’ll definitely medal.”

Paddy Barnes leads Ireland during the Rio Olympic Games 2016 Opening Ceremony at the Maracana, Rio de Janeiro.

This is the third week of the St Paul’s summer scheme and McKay said the young boxers have been inspired by the news that their clubmate will carry the flag, as well as Ireland’s medal hopes, in Japan.

“We got the kids all together this morning and told them all about Brendan’s great achievement and all the young ones were ecstatic,” he explained.

“They were saying: ‘When’s he on TV? We can’t wait to see him!’ They are looking forward to it. There are nine and 10 years old looking up to Brendan as a role model and you can see the buzz he gives them.”

Irvine’s joint flagbearer, former world champion Harrington, will be making her debut at the Games. The Dubliner explained: "This means so much to me, to be able to represent not only myself as a person, but as a boxer, for boxing, for my family and for Ireland.

"It's an amazing honour, there are so many athletes out here, and to be chosen as one of the flagbearers is absolutely fantastic."

As part of its commitment to gender equality, the International Olympic Committee involved all competing nations to nominate a male and female athlete to share flag-carrying duties.

Jim McCourt, Ireland flag-bearer and a bronze medallist in Tokyo in 1964


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