I was only 17 years old when I qualified for the 1988 Olympic Games. I’d won the national championships, but the Irish Olympic Committee initially didn’t want to send me to the Games in Seoul because they said I was too young. I’d had 12 international fights in a row and knocked every single person out but they still weren’t going to send me. Finally, though, at the very last minute, they decided that they would send me to Seoul which I was, obviously, really, really happy about.
I’d only just turned 18 and was the youngest member of the Irish team at the ’88 Olympics and because of that, I was selected to carry the Irish flag at the Opening Ceremony. The thing about being selected to carry the flag that’s pretty unique to where I come from is that it’s a very political thing. I was born in the Shankill Road in Belfast, which was right at the centre of ‘the Troubles’, and so there was a lot of political stuff going on.
But I always used to say: “I’m a sportsman, not a politician,” and I really was - the Olympics were about sport, not about politics. So when I was asked to be flag-bearer, it was such an honour and of course, my answer was yes. I didn’t even have to think about it - immediately I knew I wanted to do it because this was about sport and nothing else.
Just getting to the Olympics was a dream of mine. When I was 15 years old, I knew I wanted to be a world champion professional, but I also knew that I had to get medals in the amateurs before turning pro, so the Olympics was always a huge goal for me. So just to be in Seoul was fantastic, never mind being flag-bearer.
At the Opening Ceremony in 1988, as we were all waiting to march into the stadium, I was pretty nervous. The entire Irish team was behind me and they were all taking photos of me with the flag and I remember thinking - why are you taking pictures, I haven’t done anything, I’m just carrying the flag?! And then I walked into the stadium - it was sold-out with something like 70,000 people in there and another two billion people watching on television and the spotlight was on me and I remember just thinking - wow. I was this small guy - I only weighed seven and a half stone - holding the flag. It was surreal.
You might have thought that I’d feel under a lot of pressure being the flag-bearer but actually, I didn’t. After walking out though, I don’t remember any of the Ceremony. In fact, I still don’t think the experience has fully sunk in even now, almost 30 years later.
It was all over so quickly - it was weird. It’s such a huge thing but it’s over in the blink of an eye. Not only had I never been to an Olympic Games before Seoul, I had never even been to an international competition before. So the Olympics were my first time fighting in an international event, which is pretty crazy, and it was hard to take everything in the Opening Ceremony in.
What was so fantastic was that when I went back home after the Games, nobody said anything negative to me about carrying the Irish flag and that was back in the days when it was like a war-zone in Belfast. I felt like it was a really positive thing for me and for where I came from that I was a sportsperson representing the Shankill Road, which was known for other things.
By my second Olympics, in 1992, I was much more experienced and by then, I’d grown into a man. I was disappointed not to win gold in Barcelona but I was still so pleased to have won silver. As the Barcelona Olympics came to a close though, I knew that I wouldn’t be at another Olympic Games. I knew that the Closing Ceremony in 1992 would be my last experience at the Olympics but I wasn’t sad about that, I was just excited about moving onto the next thing.
Despite everything I did in my pro career, the Olympics still has a special place in my heart. Not everybody watches boxing but everybody watches the Olympics. You get fans from around the world as a result of boxing in the Olympics and still, to this day, people will say to me - I remember watching you at the Olympics. I’ve got world championship belts, but it’s my Olympic medal that people still ask me to show them.