Michael Carruth’s 1992 Olympic gold medal memories

Welterweight boxer won Ireland’s first Olympic gold in 36 years at Barcelona Games

Michael Carruth and his Olympic gold medal
Michael Carruth and his Olympic gold medal / Cillian Shields

Cillian Shields | Barcelona

July 23, 2022 11:23 AM

Michael Carruth is a sporting hero in Ireland, with his legendary status confirmed at the 1992 Olympic Games held in Catalonia – “it’s 30 years gone and I’m still shaking hands and getting photographs taken,” he tells Catalan News. It was the first gold medal the nation had won at the Olympics for 36 years, prompting scenes of jubilation across the country and among Irish fans who traveled for the Games.

The Irish welterweight boxer defeated Cuban world champion Juan Hernández to win the gold medal in Badalona’s Països Catalans court. Outside the venue, the Irish fans celebrated wildly and waited for their hero to come out. “I came out of the arena to an applause I had never heard in my life and never will hear again in my life,” Carruth says. “The amount of people there that wanted to touch your head or hit your bag.”

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The gold medalist almost had to be smuggled out of the area, he explains, as a Team Ireland official grabbed him into a car, because otherwise, – “they’re going to absolutely trample you to get a touch of you,” Carruth laughs. “I got a bit of a sample of what my life was not going to be like anymore. I knew people were always going to recognize me, people were always going to stop me.” 

What’s the first thing an athlete does after winning an Olympic gold medal? For Michael Carruth, the answer was to go for a nap back in the Olympic village. He explains that that was the routine he had been used to, and the elation and exhaustion from winning the final left him too tired not to go to bed. Shortly after, he was awoken by his father, who accompanied him on his athletic journey in Barcelona. “My da wakes me up calling me ‘Seargeant Carruth’,” news had just come in that he had been promoted in his position with the Irish Army. “I didn’t want to be promoted that way, but all of a sudden life was changing.”

“All I wanted to do was get home,” Carruth says about the aftermath of the final; he was not yet in the mood for a party for his achievements. “We had been a long time away from our loved ones, and I had only gotten married in the April of 92, we couldn’t go on a honeymoon. I couldn’t wait to get home and get into some sort of normality.” 

That normality eventually came, but not before being brought straight from Dublin airport to a hotel in the city center in order to get ready for a parade the next day. For the boxers, whose routine included eating regularly as well as naps, this was another thing the authorities parading them around hadn’t considered, leaving Carruth very hungry for an uncomfortable amount of time.

“We bunked out of the Olympic village”

Eventually, he got into the celebratory mood. “We were bold, me and Wayne,” he reveals, with a grin growing larger as the story begins. Wayne McCullough was an Ireland teammate of Carruth’s, who won the silver medal in the bantamweight category. “The day after the Olympic final, it was the closing ceremony, we bunked out of the Olympic village and everybody was looking for us and we went for a pint. We found an Irish pub in Barcelona.” 

The pair, who had developed a strong bond stretching back to even the 1988 Games in Seoul, were delighted to enjoy a relaxing drink in each other’s company after the competition had finished, but Michael noticed that the bartender was eyeing up who his newest customers were, with medals around their necks and speaking in Irish voices. “I could just see him ringing people, and I’m looking at him saying, ‘You’re not telling anybody we’re here?’ and he said ‘No, no, I wouldn’t do that.’ And all of a sudden there were about 200 people outside the bloody door, they couldn’t believe that we were there!”

During their stay in the Olympic village, athletes had all of their needs catered for. Yet, “it could get a bit boring at times, no question about it.” Apart from training and eating, there was a movie theater on site, as well as a bowling alley that was run by an Irish person. “We didn’t have to queue for two hours like the rest, it was just ‘alright lads, over here!’” 

The owner of the bowling alley promised the Irish athletes their own custom-made green bowling ball with their names engraved on it if they won the gold medals. Carruth laughed off the notion – “Yeah right, course you are…” Fast forward a couple of weeks, and the Olympic champion was given a shock about how heavy a bowling ball actually was when trying to fit it in his bags. The owner of the bowling alley also gifted Wayne his own ball too, for his achievement of winning silver. “And we never went bowling ever again,” Michael says, “so it was a bit of a waste.” 

Diistractions and experience

Carruth had the benefit of experience heading into Barcelona, as he had competed at the 1988 Games as well for Ireland. “I was 21 years old, I was a kid,” he says of his time in Korea. He explains that young athletes seeing new parts of the planet, and the excitement of seeing some of the world’s greatest athletes in your presence, leads to getting “distracted with a lot of things.” He cites seeing American 400m runner Edwin Moses as an example – “we were taking pictures with these guys, and getting distracted.” 

“Myself and Wayne were the only two surviving members of the ‘88 team. So what the first Olympic Games taught us, although we got nothing medal-wise, it gave us experience. Unfortunately, some of the members of our ‘92 team fell into the trap of the ‘88 team, looking at these great athletes and looking for autographs and photographs. I didn’t fall into that trap, myself and Wayne just kept doing what we had to do, and eventually, we were the last two left in the competition.” 

‘“Explode” was the word’

Juan Hernández posed an enormous challenge for Carruth in the final. In 1991, the Cuban won the Welterweight World Championships, a feat he repeated in the next three of the next four editions. The Cuban was undoubtedly the favorite to pick up gold in Barcelona. “The whole world was telling me I’m gonna lose, but I was the only one not listening.” 

Carruth went into the fight with total confidence: “I said, he’s the same weight as me, he’s a little bit taller, I’ve always been used to fighting taller lads, he’s a southpaw, I’m a southpaw, I love fighting southpaws because I know what they do.”

In between rounds, Carruth noticed that the coaches in his opponents’ corner were “sulking” when looking at the scores, instead of giving him encouragement. In the Irishman’s corner, the picture was the total opposite, with energy in abundance. 

Going into the last round, the scores were tied 8-8, but Carruth could take solace in the fact that he knew he was dominating the bout because three of Hernández’s points were awarded because of a public warning the Irishman was given for holding. 

“I really wanted him to come at me for the last three minutes of that fight, which might sound a little bit reckless and dangerous, but he was coming into my range,” Carruth explains. The tactics for the all-important fight were centered on intelligence, discipline, and drawing his opponent on to him, and then “explode.” 

“He played the silly role, he came into me. I think the first 40 or 50 seconds of the round I beat him,” Carruth says. “I didn’t care how ugly the fight was, if you win ugly you win ugly, if you win beautiful you win beautiful, you still win. My right hook was faster than his right hook, and that was the end of it.”