By Donald “Braveheart” Stewart
There’s never a good time to lose a fighter and over the last month there have been one or two who have passed, just at the time that the sport finds itself in a hiatus. We are looking towards the summer of the boxing season whilst the winter of Jim McCourt, finally caught up with him. A Belfast man, he found himself representing, as so many do in the north of Ireland, both sides of the divide as he was in the 1964 Tokyo and 1968 Mexico Olympics and 1965 European Championships in East Berlin for Ireland, and the Commonwealth Games in Kingston in 1966 for Northern Ireland. He came away from three out of the four with a medal – bronzes in the Tokyo Olympics and Europeans and a coveted gold in the Commonwealth.
As a coveted fighter, McCourt remains one of only 18 Irish fighters to claim an Olympic medal, but his influence is wider than these events. He was a hero, with skills that few could match – in fact he was rated, number one amateur in the world for no fewer than four years during this time, but, of course, it is the story of the Games which dominates. And McCourt’s place is assured as boxing is the most successful Olympic sport. Not too hard to believe in a country famed for its relationship with a good scrap!
James Vincent McCourt was born at the tail end of the Second World War, in 1944, in Belfast, a protestant city, which was due, by the time he was at the tail end of his career, to burst into sectarian violence, his sporting trajectory was almost all amateur.
The story of his 1964 Olympic triumph was soured by a contentious loss to Soviet boxer Velikton Barannikov in the lightweight semifinal. Though he lost 3-2, many saw him winning and it was a souring note. He started his Olympic journey with a 4-1 defeat of the South Korean, Seo Bun-Nam. Pakistan’s Ghulam Sarwar was dispatched in the next round by the same score. It was three of the same scores in a row in the quarter final when he beat the Spaniard, Domingo Barrera Corpas, 4-1.
After the semi-final loss, it transpired that McCourt came back home as the only Irish athlete to bring a medal back from Tokyo. His daughter, Cathy, spoke in interviews after his passing of how the Russian made contact years later. She told the BBC, “The Russian fighter sent him a letter about 20 years ago saying that he knew Daddy had won the fight. He said that he wanted to make peace with him, so he sent him a gold spoon which is something apparently that Russians do when they want to make peace with someone. Barannikov said that he had it on his conscience all those years and that Daddy had won the fight and should have gone on to win the gold. He said Daddy was the greatest fighter he had ever fought and there were many who said that he was Ireland’s greatest ever amateur.”
And Cathy is no slouch athletically herself, as distance runner who won the World Masters Half Marathon, just over a year ago.
McCourt’s relationship with the Olympics was far from over, however. In 1968, in Mexico, he was to be Ireland’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony. His first fight in the ring was against the West German, Gert Puzicha. McCourt lost 5-0 – his Olympics was done.
As a lightweight, he then went to the European Championships and bagged another medal, in between the two Olympics – in East Berlin in 1965.
As Ireland had an issue with the Commonwealth, initially based upon the old British Empire, McCourt was never going to be eligible to fight for the Republic at the Commonwealth Games, but he was a Belfast native, resident in the north, part of Great Britain. And so, he fought for Northern Ireland in Jamaica and came home with the light welterweight gold medal.
After the disappointment of Mexico, McCourt continued to box and won national titles – seven of them – well into the 1970s, which eld eventually in 2011 to him being inducted into the Irish Amateur Boxing Association Hall of Fame.
But his influence, as recognized by 2020 Irish Olympian, Aidan Walsh transcended right into the present day. As he told the BBC, “Jim McCourt was actually a very good friend of my granda Niall, he was in my grandma’s house all the time. Someone actually said to me before coming out here, ‘Oh Jim McCourt’ – they always said about the styles being similar and he won it in 1964. My daddy actually phoned me the other day and he was saying about how coincidental it was that Jim won in 1964, because my daddy was born in 1964. It’s just coincidental. This type of stuff is written before we’re ever here.”
With quick hands, great strength and a fantastic chin, why he never became a professional is, to me at least, unknown, but his career was one worthy of comment and admiration. His end was unexpected, though he had been ill. A man of great humor, and of worthy admiration, Jim McCourt will be mourned, but his legacy will live on.