Hugh Russell: 'There were riots and burning cars but the fight would start and the fighting would stop'

It’s 40 years to the day since Hugh Russell secured a bronze medal for Ireland at the Moscow Olympics
Hugh Russell: 'There were riots and burning cars but the fight would start and the fighting would stop'

OLYMPIC MEDALLISTS: Michael Conlan, Hugh Russell, and Paddy Barnes at a Commonwealth Games training camp in Jordanstown, Co Antrim, in July 2014. Picture: Inpho/Presseye/Darren Kidd

If one picture paints a thousand words then no amount of ink would do justice to Hugh Russell’s life through a lens.

It was Russell, an award-winning photographer with the Irish News, who captured the iconic shot of Gerry Conlon leaving the Old Bailey in 1989 after the Guildford Four were set free.

His picture of a young girl wearing a nightdress as she stood beside a bullet-ridden door in West Belfast is up there with the most haunting images of The Troubles.

A Belfast native himself, his work amid the torment of Northern Ireland’s pain was featured in last year’s RTÉ documentary ‘Shooting the Darkness’ which told the story of the local snappers who captured the region’s agony for posterity but Russell’s first public chapter had been spent in front of the shutters rather than behind them.

He was a boxer once upon a time, good enough to claim a bronze at the Moscow Olympics and then the Lonsdale belt when he turned pro.

His two bouts with Davy Larmour at Belfast’s Ulster Hall were the most visually arresting, not least the snap captured by his later friend and colleague Brendan Murphy as a drained Russell leaned over the ropes to kiss his mother Eileen.

It’s 40 years to the day since he won his third fight in the Russian capital and guaranteed himself a place on the podium. The “blink of an eye”, he says. Russell turned 60 a few months ago and his appreciation of that achievement has only been magnified through the decades.

When people visit his house he notices how their eyes are drawn to the medal that hangs framed on a wall. For all his work and achievements since, the vast majority of correspondence he receives to this day still takes him back to the USSR.

It’s great to be an Olympian. People ask me what was it like. I described it to someone before as a bit like dying and going to heaven.

“You have everybody walking about in prime condition, the best condition they could be. You don’t want for anything. Everything is free and done for you.

“And then you are a medallist. You are in a terribly small club. We only have about 30 across all the sports.”

He was only 20 when his name was added to the roll of honour but not quite a babe in the wood.

Multiple appearances for Ireland had already been banked across a variety of international borders and he’d earned a bronze medal for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in Canada two years before.

Hugh Russell celebrates his Olympic medal success in 1980
Hugh Russell celebrates his Olympic medal success in 1980

The Olympics, though? Another world entirely, even if his most enduring memories are of the micro rather than the macro: the daily blasts of ‘Happy Birthday’ being sung to another athlete in the vast Olympic village, those last few moments of peace and pregnant pause in the dressing-room before taking to the ring.

He wasn’t the most obvious of medal prospects when he left Dublin Airport. Eamonn Coghlan was on a mission to better his fourth-placed finish in the 1,500m in 1976, Barry McGuigan was the undoubted star among the boxers and a young Stephen Roche was beginning to make a name for himself on the roads of continental Europe.

Russell’s place on the team looked a long shot in itself when Gerry Hawkins knocked him out in the nationals at light flyweight earlier in 1980.

A move back up to fly secured his ticket and wins against Iraqi and Tanzanian opponents fed into a 3-2 defeat of North Korea’s Yo Ryon-sik.

That secured the medal before eventual champion, Bulgaria’s Petar Lesov, ended his run in the semis.

All the bouts were held at the gargantuan Olimpiyskiy indoor arena which was jammed that night. The main draw was Cuba’s legendary heavyweight Teofilio Stevenson who overcame the home boy Pyotr Zayev on the way to a third straight Olympic heavyweight title.

The magnitude of his own success wasn’t lost on the Irishman even then. His was Ireland’s first medal since Jim McCourt 16 years earlier. Both were Belfast boys, just like John McNally, Freddie Gilroy and John Caldwell. Russell grew up hearing those names and he knew he was joining an exalted club, one since extended by Wayne McCullough, Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes.

What he didn’t, couldn’t, know was the impact his run was having back home.

“This was back in the ’80s. I was brought up on New Lodge Road and there would have been riots and burning of cars and fighting with the soldiers on a regular basis.

“I often was told that there would be trouble on the road and then the fight would start and the fighting would just stop. Everybody went in to watch the fight.

When it was over they all went back to what they were doing. You sort of laugh about it but you realise how much it means to people as well. I say this to kids.

“You look at the Olympics and you think some of these people are superstars — and some are — but if a wee lad from around your corner can stand on a rostrum then there is nothing to stop you doing it.”

Russell walked in the opening and closing ceremonies and his success would be matched by the sailing pair of David Wilkins and James Wilkinson who claimed a silver in the Flying Dutchman class, but he looks back now and realises that, as an athlete wrapped up in his own journey, so much of those Games passed him by.

Ethiopia’s Miruts Yifter, who won gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m, was probably the brightest star at an event whose wattage was dimmed by the boycott of the USA and 65 other nations
but Russell hadn’t a notion who the runner was when he heard people mentioning the name once he returned home.

His impression of a Soviet Union still fighting a Cold War, a conflict in Afghanistan and mounting economic and social crisis was inevitably coloured by life within the idyll that was the
Olympic village but the demand for western jeans and the beauty of Russian women he expected to look “like hod carriers” remain indelible memories.

And it was in Moscow where he took his first step towards life as a photographer.

There were only so many Russian dolls and teddy bear mascots an athlete could buy and, with a pocketful of Russian roubles that would be worthless back home, his eye was drawn to a Zenith camera.

He had always wanted to document the places he visited as a boxer. Why not, he thought. His ambitions were nothing more than that but there was one problem.

“It was one of the Zeniths that had a big pistol grip on it,” he laughs now. “When you took it out it looked like a gun. Now, when I showed my mum when I got home she almost had a
heart attack. She said I could never use that on the street or I’d be killed, you know?

“That was the naivety of a kid at the time.”

A kid in the midst of one great adventure and on the cusp of another.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up