Katie Taylor departs Olympic Games amid shock and disbelief
Keith Duggan reports from Rio - defending champion and coaches felt she had done enough
The Bray fighter looks paler than gold after it is over. She carries a thin mark above her lip and her dark eyes are searching. Ireland has become blithe in its assumption about Katie Taylor’s invincibility and although she has not boxed anything like her best on this deeply demoralising, sunny noontime in Rio, everything about the moment feels hollow, wrong: frankly horrible.
Taylor’s defeat at the world championships in Astana, against Estelle Mossely of France last May, had been a harbinger but nonetheless, seeing the referee raise the other fighter’s arm in victory; to see Taylor lose an Olympic bout is shocking.
Taylor’s face contains a harrowed, lost look in that second. Her victor, a 35-year-old Finn, Mira Potkonen, who only started boxing at 26 and who failed to qualify for London, beams in delight. Within minutes, she holds a red cloth ice-bag to her left eye to try and subdue a deep, luscious bruise which the Irish fighter has inflicted on her through the repeated series of sharp, accurate left hooks.
Unlike London’s boxing arena, as jubilantly raucous and stirring as a Shane MacGowan composition, the big old hall in the Barra is half empty and too echoing and the loyal chanting from a small band of Irish supporters feels like it is imported from another era.
The four-round bout goes down to a split decision so it falls to an Ecuadorean judge, Clemente Carillo, who had scored the fight 38-38, to submit the verdict that Katie Taylor, Olympic champion, had been beaten before lunch.
The judges file out, probably to an appointment with fish and chilled white, leaving behind them Taylor’s fast-unravelling world. The Irish woman is dazed as she congratulates Potkonen, still trying to absorb this new reality as she leaves the ring.
And her mind is still probably shooting in a million directions when she finds herself standing in front of the RTÉ television cameras. And for everyone watching at home, it’s uncomfortable to have to see her pain, her sorrow. Half the country wants to reach through the screen and give her a hug. There’s always been this contradictory quality about Taylor: for such a brilliantly tough competitor in a brutal sport, in everyday life there’s an openness and sincerity about her that is dazzling.
So a few minutes after relinquishing her gold medal and her sporting co-ordinates, Taylor trails out of the boxing arena, suddenly one of the many medal-less athletes at these Olympics. Her mother Bridget is standing close by her side and coach Eddie Bolger is on her right. Katie’s eyes widen when she is reminded that she already beaten the Finnish boxer a fistful of times in her career.
In the midst of a disappointing year, I just want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart for the amazing support. I love you all.— Katie Taylor (@KatieTaylor) August 15, 2016
“Five times?” she says softly.
“I really should be beating those girls for sure. It’s very hard to talk about the fight when it’s just finished. When you’re inside boxing, it probably looks a lot different from the outside, I’m not sure. But the judging is very, very subjective.
“Congratulations to her. I thought the second round she won for sure but I thought the other three rounds I won. Then again, they were probably close. I’d have to look at the fight again. In real time, I thought I did do enough to win. But I should be winning those fights a bit more convincingly. I’m not here to make excuses or anything.”
‘Happens a lot’
She didn’t, either. But Bolger is smarting with anger and his observations infer a belief that the internecine world of amateur boxing has cast the Irish squad into colder chambers.
“You buy into the scoring a bit. We’d give the second round close but it was clear, right hand, left hooks, right hand, left hooks, right hand, left hooks,” said Bolger. “This guy is standing on my shoulder now to make sure I don’t say anything bad but it’s up to you guys. This happens a lot. It’s happened more often. The French are flavour of the month now and if you go through the hierarchy, you’ll know why that is. That fight wasn’t even close. You can add it up and it wasn’t close. It was a shocking decision. That’s all I’m going to say about it.”
Bolger is loyal and naturally, in this moment, he is emotional. At best, the fight was open to interpretation. Taylor possibly shaded the first round but was shockingly unguarded in the second, when Potkonen, a bronze medallist at the world championships, was happy to brawl and launch as many punches as possible: some met nothing but air but a sufficient number of her meaty right shots caught Katie square on the face.
In the third, though, the Irish woman’s clear, artful boxing superiority surfaced. She moved nimbly and made the Finn look a step slow; every time Potkonen leaned in to attack, Taylor punished her with a series of blurry left hooks which she didn’t even see until they landed. But after the boxers re-emerged after the bell for the final round, Taylor couldn’t quite re-establish those clean lines of hit and move and Potkonen opened with a series of whaling punches in which accuracy was the least concern. It established the notion that she was the aggressor and even if Taylor marginally won the round, the Finn had done enough to create a debate in the minds of the judges. Who knows what sways these things in their minds?
“She hits really hard,” a Finnish journalist advised of the victor. Perhaps, but Potkonen is the fighter going back to the village with a busted eye.
As it stands, both the Irish boxing team and the British, so dominant in London, are disappearing here in Rio at a rate of knots, substantiating the suspicion that the scoring system is unknowable, at best.
On ability, Taylor should have removed any license for discretion here. Taylor celebrated her 30th birthday in July. Her father and long-time coach, Pete Taylor, is no longer at ringside. In the space of four months, she has lost the world championship title she owned for six years and now her Olympic crown.
Since she captured the national imagination as a redoubtable teenager with a dream that seemed, in the beginning, wonderfully eccentric, Taylor has become a pioneer for her sport and a national treasure: no other Irish sportsperson has dominated their sport at world level for so long. Never has she had to present herself like this: low, searching and, for the first time, uncertain about her place in this sport which she has been alchemising since she was a kid.
“I feel like it’s obviously been a very, very challenging year,” she says, peering into some semblance of the future.
“I’m not finished yet, that’s for sure. It’s just very hard to say. The losses during the year have been very, very tough. But I really felt like I came into this competition very well prepared and I really believed that I’d come home with a gold medal. But the plans that I have in my heart are sometimes different than God’s plans. I just have to trust him during this time...”
Her voice trails off and she looks out at the world half imploring, half apologetic. Easy for Ireland to celebrate Katie Taylor on the many bright days but its right now that she needs to be assured about what she means to the country.