On the walls of the high-performance gym in Dublin, the cockpit where the country's elite boxers hone their skills, are displayed the aphorisms which each of them has chosen to motivate themselves in the ring. The motto Olympic silver medallist Kenny Egan put up there in the dog years before he shot to fame declares: "Accept your mistakes but learn from them."
Last Wednesday morning, Egan brought down the curtain on his out-of-character role as Irish sport's latest Scarlet Pimpernel when he arrived back from New York to face the music. To background strains of government ministers accusing bankers of economic treason, the handsome 27-year-old athlete came home to atone for spectacularly letting his country down by snubbing an international boxing tournament where he had been scheduled to captain Ireland against the US. He was taken straight from Dublin Airport to the offices of the Institute of Sport in Abbotstown to commence his act of contrition. For nearly four hours he talked candidly and listened to the advice of "people who care about him": high-performance director Gary Keegan, national coach Billy Walsh and boxing-performance psychologist Gerry Hussey.
Egan's first act of reparation was to phone everybody he had disappointed and apologise to them. He started with a call to his mother, Maura, to whom he is so close it is supposed by his confidantes he would never have reached the Olympic podium without her guidance. After that he rang John Treacy, the head of the Irish Sports Council which pays Egan €50,000 a year; the president of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, Dominic O'Rourke; Neilstown club coach Gerry Fleming; his agent Liam Gaskin; and world-title challenger Bernard Dunne. He told the latter he was sorry but he was going to drop out as the support act for his challenge fight at the O2 arena on 21 March. Everybody he called accepted his apologies.
His next task was to sort out his mobile phone. "It was full of numbers of people he didn't even know," says Gary Keegan. "One of his great character traits is he wants to please everybody. He could be sitting in a restaurant and somebody would tap him on the shoulder and say, 'Will you do this or that?' and he'd say sure. There were only about eight key numbers in his phone, mostly family." On Wednesday afternoon in Abbotstown, Egan destroyed his Sim card. Then he went to a computer and erased his personal posts from the internet. Finally, he and the other three men drew up a campaign of action.
"We didn't plan past two weeks to give him a chance to come to terms with things," says Keegan. "The idea is to get him back working hard and feel the physical pain because, when you feel the pain, it clears the mind. He needs time to reflect on what's happened. He was very relieved and happy to get a lot of things off his chest. We need heroes more than ever and he's a good lad. He's a normal human being. He's done nothing terribly wrong except he's missed an international. He wants to be liked, as most of us do. He likes to keep things light. Even in the dressing room before the biggest fight of his life he wants people to laugh and joke with him."
In the statement issued to the media on his behalf on Wednesday afternoon, Kenny Egan accepted the blame for having "largely fed the media commentary" which, it seems, caused him to do a runner to the iconic Chelsea Hotel in New York. "He has found dealing with the success and the new-found fame it brings very challenging and he says himself that he hasn't handled it appropriately, and put himself out there in celebrity world and got caught up in it," went the official statement.
'The Fling King'
They had nicknamed him "the Fling King" in the tabloids because he was photographed with so many famous women since his 18-month romance with girl-around-the-corner Karen O'Sullivan ended in the dizzy aftermath of Beijing. Egan had sold his car to get to the Olympics and spent what was left taking Karen on a holiday to Turkey afterwards. He knew his life was going to be turned upside-down and he worried about the stress it would cause her.
Before leaving China, he was earning €40,000 from the Sports Council and he told Sunday Tribune sports writer Malachy Clerkin: "I'm living on the bones of me arse here." He came home to be showered with freebies: a Toyota Corolla, an Astra convertible and first-class flights to the US where it was chauffeurs, limos and destination-spa luxury all the way. Then he'd touch back down in Dublin and go home to his mother's house in Neilstown. "He was going to five events a day, opening leisure centres, doing tv shows, opening shops, posing with some model and getting 50 quid here, 50 quid there," says Clerkin.
The parade of high-octane and minor celebs he was photographed with included former Miss World winner Rosanna Davison, a Big Brother contestant called Chantelle Houghton and an Irish army lieutenant, Colette McBarron, a former Miss Ireland contestant. Some of the images reproduced in the papers were taken on camera phones by citizen-journalists operating in the mass-media twilight. One such image was of two women he didn't know who asked for autographs for their children. The difference between Kenny Egan and other denizens of his new social circle was that there was a reason he was famous. It made him bankable in the marketplace and magnetic in the netherworld of nightclubs and the incestuous celebration of inanity. "He's good-looking. He's athletic. He's famous. You don't need a commercial incentive to fancy the boxer shorts off him," says media adviser Terry Prone when asked if others might have seen an opportunity to enhance their fortunes by association with him.
Undoubtedly, he helped shift tabloid papers off the shelves. His early protests that he wanted to get "off page three and back into the sports pages" were off-message and went ignored. The personal cost to "an uncomplicated lad with no agenda" proved too much. Yet his diplomatic acceptance of blame for courting the celeb-press was an implicit acknowledgement of the mutual dependency that exists between the media and the famous. Gary Keegan concedes: "We need the media. We need our athletes to be profiled. They enjoy being written about in a positive way. There's a balance and it has to be found."
Journalists in Ireland are bound by a code of ethics that requires them to "strive at all times for truth and accuracy" and to respect the privacy of public persons, subject to specified exceptional circumstances. Principle 3.2 prohibits the procurement of photographs through misrepresentation or subterfuge, unless in the public interest. Principle 5.5 avers that taking photographs of individuals in private places without their consent is unacceptable, also unless justified by the public interest.
'Hopefully he's had his fun'
The media's increased appetite for celebrity stories is illustrated by the euphemisms that were routinely employed to report the absences from duty of former Irish international footballer Paul McGrath in the 1990s. He was always either "ill" or "injured" when, in fact, he had bolted. When Kenny Egan fled last weekend that was what was reported.
"He's not like Katy French, looking for the publicity," says Michael Foley, head of journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology, "but he is a public figure and his antics all get covered. It goes with the territory, I'm afraid. My advice to him would be to go back to the gym. This will be a blip. Hopefully, he's had his fun and he'll go back to being a sports star. You have to be a Pádraig Harrington. You have to have the nice family at home and hope nothing goes wrong that can be used to make a good soap opera-like story. This celebrity journalism is more damaging to newspapers than to Kenny Egan. Papers have to have credibility. If there's a pile of stories you don't believe but they're a laugh to read, where's the boundary? There have been surveys in the UK which show that most readers of some tabloid papers don't actually believe what's in them. At the end of the day, newspapers are about that which is true."
Terry Prone believes that, "Kenny Egan colluded in his own destruction by going walk-about, but it's not final destruction". Last Wednesday, he agreed with his advisers that he will not accept any engagements for the next two months and that he will endeavour to keep his private life, his business life and his sports career separate.
"At 27, he's achieved his life's goal. Not many of us do that," says Gary Keegan. "He has to set new goals and remotivate himself. He keeps a training diary where he writes down everything he's done in training and his feelings every day. It's very disciplined, but step outside of that and society doesn't have a whole host of structures for most of us. Our motto is 'people first, boxers second'. We got that right in the high performance. We don't just use them to go out there and win medals for us. But success isn't easy. Not for the athlete and not for the support staff who have to cope with it too. Maybe it's something the Institute of Sport should look at after [the] London [Olympics in 2012].
"If the media are outside your door, you can't even open the curtain to let the sunlight in. There were periods when he felt like a prisoner in his own home. He knows he's contributed to it. He was in high-performance training for six years in obscurity. Now he goes out and everybody feels they can walk up to him and talk to him because he's a very approachable lad.
"His mum is worried about him. Not because he's an Olympic champion but because he's her son."
As he prepares for the London Olympics, Kenny Egan might ponder another pithy saying on the walls of the elite boxers' gym; the one that goes: Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.