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Paris, the pros, or peace and quiet: What might be next for Kellie Harrington?

Gavan Casey explores three potential avenues for Ireland’s third Olympic boxing champion, all of which may appeal to her for different reasons.

Kellie Harrington on her way to the ring for her Olympic final.
Kellie Harrington on her way to the ring for her Olympic final.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IF YOU WATCHED her post-fight evaluations in Tokyo, or if you’ve followed her career generally, you might never guess that Olympic champion Kellie Harrington can be a bit wary of doing interviews.

She has justifiably felt stung once or twice by the framing in articles of her day job — she’s part of the cleaning staff in St Vincent’s Hospital — as a tale of struggle, whereas in reality it’s a job she does out of sheer love rather than by necessity. As a result, she tends to do one-on-one interviews only when they’re assigned to her either by a sponsor or the powers that be.

In spite of that, and while this shouldn’t be the case strictly speaking, the handful of journalists in this country who routinely cover Irish boxing hold Harrington in special esteem. She sits on a pedestal not merely for her world-conquering ability or her obvious authenticity, both of which marry nicely with our attempts to do our own jobs. It is instead for her everyday kindness that Harrington is mostly revered. Any journalist with whom she’s familiar will be able to tell you a story of when that warmth was extended to them, be it after the birth of a new baby, while a loved one was unwell, or simply because she enjoyed one of their tweets.

The Irish-boxing great who, over the past fortnight, has brought such a smile to the country while speaking on the record, is a woman who constantly makes people smile while off the record. There really is no veneer.

That transparency works two ways, though: if Harrington has a qualm with a question asked of her or a paragraph written about her, be under no doubt: she’ll let you know about it. For that reason, her online media call upon her homecoming tomorrow is one that this writer will be joining with a sprinkling of trepidation because, at some point, one of us is going to have to ask her, ‘So, Kellie, what’s next for you?’ And understandably, she’s probably not going to appreciate the nature of the inquiry having barely had a chance to unpack her Olympic gold medal from her carry-on luggage.

The reality is simply that we don’t know when we’ll get the chance to ask again — on the record, anyway. But people naturally wonder, particularly in a sport like boxing which consists of two very different pursuits, one of which Harrington has now ostensibly completed.

Equally likely is that she won’t yet have a definite answer: even if Harrington had mapped out the next leg of her journey in advance of Tokyo, the insanity of the last six weeks — and the euphoria of the last 48 hours — may inspire a change in route, one way or the other.

The only certainty is that within a boxing context, there will be three avenues available to her whenever she sits down to ask ‘what’s next’ of herself, if indeed she needs to ask herself at all. And at the age of 31, seemingly at the peak of her powers, she is at the perfect crossroads where all three options make sense on paper.

The first is to remain amateur and potentially even bid for qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics. The second is to turn professional and bid for glory in boxing’s punch-for-pay ranks. The third is to call it a day and live her life.

On the first option: it’s not at all impossible that Harrington will box on as an amateur but without the intention of making it as far as Paris. She places a special significance in the Irish Elite Championships: unlike in international competition, they allow her to box for her club, St Mary’s BC in Tallaght, and to be cornered by her club coach, Noel Burke, an especially significant force in her career. A Finals night at Dublin’s National Stadium either later this year or early next year, boxing for the Irish title in front of family, friends and neighbours would, theoretically, be a poetic way to take a final bow.

‘Theoretically’ because winning the Elites would be far from a cake-walk: waiting in the wings at domestic level for an assault on the crown is Amy Broadhurst, whom Harrington beat in her last national final in 2018. The Dundalk woman is in her own right a world-class talent and will have her eye on a Paris spot regardless of what Harrington chooses to do next.

The mere idea of Harrington exploring the second option, ditching the Irish vest and having a go at the pros, will turn people’s stomachs just as it did when Katie Taylor made that decision following her Olympic quarter-final exit in 2016. Mind you, it’s worked out pretty well for Harrington’s 60kg predecessor: she’s one of the highest-earning female athletes on the planet — probably the highest outside of tennis as she now pockets seven-figure sums per fight — and her prizefighting exploits have extended both her legend and her legacy to a degree that was absolutely unforeseeable five years ago.

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Make no mistake about it: Harrington is a boxing promoter’s dream. In a sport as niche as theirs, they rarely get to sign a legitimate national sporting hero with a massive, ready-made fan base and in Harrington’s case, boasting the most marketable personality to boot. She will receive offers. Big ones. The prospect of a mortgage-free existence will present itself as a reality as soon as she checks her voicemail. So too will the prospect of a professional showdown with Taylor, which several promoters will see as simply being good business.

Harrington has in the past expressed a half-interest in exploring the professional scene but only if the offer was huge, the contract short, and the opportunity for a world-title shot — provided she won her first few fights — borderline guaranteed in writing. As an Olympic champion, she is now in a position to make these demands of any promoter. Business aside, whether or not the actual boxing side of it, the physical toll in adapting from 3×3-minute rounds to 10×2, would still interest her after a painstaking two-year effort to peak for a postponed Olympics remains to be seen. We can only be sure that somebody’s getting daggers down the Zoom lens when they ask her about it on tomorrow’s press call.

Finally, option three: retirement. Harrington is one of two Irish boxers ever to have won European, World Championship and Olympic gold, the other being Katie Taylor. She is a bona fide legend of Irish boxing, of Irish sport, and has sacrificed an inordinate amount to scale that mountain. She has a partner of 13 years, Mandy Loughlin, who has made plenty of sacrifices of her own in order to facilitate her storied career. She has a job she loves and if the IABA have any sense — an eternal debate in its own right — she should one day have a boxing-related role for life. Plus, another three years of interviews might not seem so appealing from this juncture…

The only complaint anybody could have if Harrington decides to hang up the gloves would be that they didn’t get a chance to stand and applaud her out of the arena in person.

Regardless of what the future holds — and irrespective of those pesky questions tomorrow — she is an Olympic champion. Future generations will read of the great Kellie Harrington, a champion of the people. Harrington, like the rest of us, should bask in that knowledge for as long or as short as she pleases.

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