It appears to be generally accepted that Belfast’s John McNally wrote Irish boxing into the history books on 01/08/1952 when he beat Korea’s Joon-Ho Kang in the bantamweight semi-final at the Helsinki Olympics.
That win secured at least silver, a first Olympic medal for the IABA.
However, at the last minute, the 1952 Games saw a rule-change that made it the first Olympiad where beaten semi finalists were awarded bronze. Therefore the Northerner actually guaranteed Ireland a first medal twenty four hours previously when he saw off Italy’s Vincenzo Dall’osso in the quarters.
Before the 1952 Games, defeated semi-finalist boxed-off for bronze, denying Ireland four medals. Immediately prior to the Helsinki Olympics it was decided, at an AIBA Congress, to eliminate bronze medal box-offs. However, due to the short notice, no bronze medals were awarded at all to any boxers in the Finnish capital. Instead losing semi finalists were presented with diplomas and had their national flags raised at the gold and silver medal ceremony.
Thankfully the bronze medals were presented retrospectively in the early 1970s at a ceremony in Helsinki.
All this official wrangling was of academic interest to teenager McNally, as he upgraded to silver after beating Kang to set up the 54kg final with Finnish home favourite Pentti Hamalainen at the Messuhalli Stadium. The stage was set, but it wasn’t to be for the Ulster ace, who had beaten Alejandro Ortuoste of the Philippines in the preliminaries, as Hamalainen was handed a controversial split decision victory.
McNally recalled in Barry Flynn’s Legends of Irish Boxing that “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 pressure on the Finn’s shoulders to deliver.”
“The Finn had been cautioned at least eight times during the bout for hitting with the inside of the glove and for using his head to open up my eye, which in today’s rules would have cost him points.”
“When the bell rang we were all convinced that that I had got the decision. It came down to the three judges and the British judge gave it to me, while the American and Austrian gave it to Hamalainen. I could not believe it when his hand was raised.”
Lightweight Kevin Martin and light-welterweight Terry Milligan also recorded wins in Helsinki and Dublin brothers Ando Reddy and Tommy Reddy, Peter Crotty, Willie Duggan and John John Lyttle also lined out for Ireland. Milligan won two bouts in 1952.
Meanwhile, McNally’s silver medal was the first piece of silverware that Ireland had won at the Olympics since Bod Tisdall and Pat O’Callaghan struck double gold in track and field at the 1932 Games.
The USA finished on top of the medals table in boxing at the 1952 Games with five gold medals, one of which went to future heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson.
Irish boxing, courtesy of McNally’s sole podium finish, finally made the Olympics medals table, finishing in 13th position.
Flyweight: Ando Reddy (Sandymount)
Lost to Aristide Pozzali (Italy) 0-3
Bantamweight: John McNally (White City) – Silver
Beat Alejandro Ortuoste (Philippines) 3-0
Beat Vincenzo Dall’osso (Italy) 3-0
Beat Joon-Ho Kang (Korea) 3-0
Lost to Pentti Hamalainen (Finland) 1-2
Featherweight: Tommy Reddy (Sandymount)
Lost to Stefan Redli (Yugoslavia) KO2
Lightweight Kevin Martin (Mount Street)
Beat Marcel van de Keere (Belgium) 2-1
Lost to Gheorghe Fiat (Romania) 0-3
Light-welter: Terry Milligan (Shortt and Harland)
Beat Ebraham Afsharpour (Iran) 3-0
Beat Pieter van Klaveren (Holland) 3-0
Lost to Bruno Vistinin (Italy) 0-3
Welterweight: Peter Crotty (Clonmel)
Lost to Harry Gunnarsson (Sweden) KO2
Middleweight: Willie Duggan (Crumlin)
Lost to eventual silver medallist Vasile Tita (Romania) DQ3
Heavyweight: John Lyttle (St George’s)
Lost to Jean Lansiaux (France) 0-3