03 March 2009 – By Mark Doyle
Last summer Kenny Egans life changed. The 26-year-old Irish light-heavyweight won a silver medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing.
Two of Egans team-mates, Paddy Barnes and Darren Sutherland, also won medals in China but there was no doubting who was the star man.
Good-looking, good-natured and witty, Egan became the face of Irish boxings remarkable summer success. That he accepted his controversial points defeat to hometown favourite Xiaoping Zhang with humility and grace only endeared him further to his compatriots.
He returned to his homeland a national hero.
Unsurprisingly, he was immediately courted by the professional game. After months of speculation, though, he decided to remain on as captain of the Irish amateur team, determined to lead the team into London 2012, where he hoped he would win the gold many felt he was unfairly denied in Beijing.
Egans love of the amateur game was obvious but there was another significant factor in his decision. In the months following his silver-medal success, he realised that his newfound national acclaim has a downside: celebrity.
His relationship status became a favoured topic of the Irish tabloids. When he subsequently broke up with his long-term girlfriend their interest only intensified.
When we spoke in January, after he had had the freedom of the county of Dublin bestowed upon him at a ceremony in Tallaght, Egan admitted that he had done himself few favours in terms of the media scrutiny his personal life came under post-Beijing. He had, after all, been pictured with a number of wannabe C-list celebrities.
But Egan felt victimised all the same.
I was so close to turning pro. But there was so much stuff happening over here: Me getting photographed with models and suddenly Im sleeping with them! It was nonsense!
“I thought, ‘Is this what a person who comes home as a national hero from the Olympics has to put up with?’
“I mean, I think Im the only sports person ever that when he came home from a sporting even people wrote about his personal life. That was hard to handle. Im not used to that stuff.
“I was thinking, This is madness! Why is everyone talking about me? I cant piss crooked! Maybe Id be better off going to The States as a professional and being a nobody over there rather than a somebody over here.
But then I would have been just running away from the problem. I would have been cheating myself. So I decided, No, I wont. Im going to get back on the back pages rather than the front pages. Im going back training. The only pictures that the papers will be able to get off me will be coming in and out of the gym. They wont be able to write anymore rubbish about me.’
Now, in fairness, I did enjoy myself in the few months that I was off. I went to openings and parties but that was all part of it. Ive no regrets and thats all behind me now. Im focused. Whereas in the last few months I didnt have a focus.
For about four months I was going around really depressed, snapping at my parents, just being a real bastard. Once I made the decision, I felt happy and the weight came off my shoulders because I was being asked if I was going pro for four months solid. All day, every day and I just couldnt handle it.
Im not saying that I chickened out and stayed amateur just to get people off my back. Thats how long it took me to make up my mind, to make the decision, and I feel like I made the right one. Im sticking by it. Im happy now.
Only Kenny wasnt happy. The unwanted press intrusion into his private life did not relent, would not go away.
Just over a month after our interview, and six days after he had made history by winning a ninth consecutive Irish Seniors title, Egan failed to show for the weigh-in for Irelands international against the U.S.A.
Fight night came and went and there was still no sign of Egan. His manager and agent could shed no light on his whereabouts. All the press had to go on where cryptic messages on his Twitter Social Networking page which suggested that he had skipped town.
Indeed, it emerged on Monday that Egan, still struggling to come to terms with his newfound celebrity status, had absconded to the United States for the weekend.
There are those that will have been irked and possibly even angered by Egans behaviour and that is understandable. He had a responsibility to the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (who have looked after him well), to his team-mates and his fans to lead his country in last weekends clash with their American counterparts.
However, those who are infuriated, those who have been quick to judge him, those who claim that fame is a price every high-profile athlete pays for sporting success should put themselves in his position.
Less than a year ago, Egan was a complete unknown outside of a small group of Irish boxing enthusiasts.
After winning four fights in August he became one of the most recognisable faces not just in Irish sport, but in Irish public life.Unfortunately, when that happens an invasion of privacy is inevitable. It is not excusable, though.
If Egan had done something salacious to merit such intense scrutiny of his private life, then it might have been understandable. But all he was guilty of was spending a few months enjoying his Olympic success. After 17 years of sacrifice, that was surely no crime at all?
But Kenny Egan the boxer had became Kenny Egan the celebrity, his every single move scrutinised by the gossip columnists.
It did not sit easily with him. This was not a man comfortable in the limelight.
Indeed, even when it was noted by one of the speakers at the aforementioned ceremony in Tallaght that the week after Egan won his silver medal he was up at an old folks home in Clondalkin doing his bit for his community, Egan felt the need to address the& topic in his speech.
It’s a bit embarrassing people giving me credit for that stuff. I’ve always done it and I don’t see why I should stop. Im still Kenny Egan from Neilstown. Im not going to change just because Ive got an Olympic medal.”
And that’s the thing: Egan didn’t want to change – hence the decision to reject the fame and fortune on offer in the professional game. After enjoying his very flirtation with the celebrity circuit, Egan assumed that when he went back into the gym everything would return to normal. It did not.
Some would argue that he should not have expected it to but one can hardly blame an amateur sportsman who suddenly finds fame at 26 for being somewhat naive about exactly how it all works.
One now hopes that he is treated with understanding and compassion when he eventually does surface to face the glare of the media spotlight once more.
Its a funny thing, he told me at the end of our interview in January, The press coverage has some benefits, the positive stuff anyway. I came home from The Games on the Tuesday and I went for a drive on the Thursday just to clear my head.
I got as far as the top of the road and saw two little kids with mitts on sparring each other out on the green. That was something Id never ever seen before: young lads out boxing when they used to be out playing football. I mean, our gym in Neilstown is full every night now. All clubs across the country are full and thats great.
So, if Ive gotten one extra kid into a club Ive done something right. And it doesnt even have to be boxing. The sport doesnt suit everyone but if I knew that one kid watched me in Beijing and then decided to get himself off the street and into a gym or on to a pitch, then Id be happy enough with that.
True happiness s is a very difficult thing to find but Kenny Egan is at his happiest when he steps into a boxing ring. As a result, when he steps out of it, he should be afforded the respect and space he deserves to allow him to continue to inspire many more kids to follow in his footsteps.
It would be tragic if he is not allowed to.