Terry Spinks: From dustman to Olympic boxing champion

By Mike CostelloBBC boxing commentator

How many Olympic champions prepared for their march to glory by shifting rubbish?

Terry Spinks was working as a dustman in London's East End when he got a late call-up for the Games in Melbourne in 1956.

At the time, there was a feeling in amateur boxing circles that Spinks was too young and inexperienced for such an ordeal, which is why his name had been omitted from the original team to travel to Australia.

Too green to go for gold, they said.

A campaign in the press, with writer and commentator Reg Gutteridge to the fore, eventually persuaded the selectors to remove the blinkers and the one-time apprentice jockey was Australia-bound at the age of 18. Sceptics and supporters alike would soon be celebrating as he won five bouts in seven days at flyweight to take the ultimate honour in amateur boxing.

Of the five Britons to win Olympic gold in the ring since World War Two, Spinks is the youngest. Sporting achievement can be measured on a scale of rarity: no other British teenager has matched Spinks's feat. His was a special talent.

He was a product of West Ham Amateur Boxing Club, whose alchemists would later nurture characters such as Nigel Benn, Mark Kaylor and, more recently, Kevin Mitchell. He was in good hands - and around at a good time.

Boxing, generally, was flourishing. The post-war decade in Britain had been studded with colossal fights involving Freddie Mills, Randy Turpin, Don Cockell and others.

Although TV coverage of the Games was sparse, Spinks returned home a hero, with local children given a day off school to salute him. It was difficult to work out who looked younger, the man signing the autographs or the kids hunting them.

As a professional, he won the British featherweight title, losing it to the Welshman and future world champion Howard Winstone in 1961. Eighteen months on, Spinks had retired, blighted by problems making the weight and, he readily conceded, because of the punishment he had taken.

These days, Olympic gold medallists are recognised instantly in the honours lists. Spinks waited almost half a century. A tireless pursuit of a gong was led by his cousin Rosemary Ellmore, in whose family home he lived for many of his closing years and in whose care he was able to see out his life with the dignity it deserved.

Eventually, in 2002, he was made an MBE and it gave him the opportunity to reflect on what was, and what might have been. He described himself as a "bit of a playboy" who had miscalculated the balance between partying and gym-time.

Beyond the ring, he ran a sweet shop, drove a mini-cab and managed a pub. When two marriages failed and his parents were hit by ill-health, the only child "took comfort in a bottle of whisky".

His skills left him long before his popularity. He once recalled in an interview how, as a result of his Olympic success, he "always seemed to be presenting prizes".

I can vouch for his claim. He was guest of honour when I boxed as a boy at an amateur club show in Newhaven, Sussex, in the 70s. I had lost - and been battered - but he told me how "we all lose some time, son" and somehow the gloom was lifted.

Giving back was a pleasure not a chore. And his passing will be sorely felt across the sport. But with the Olympics about to visit his "manor", there is inspiration aplenty in his story.

At the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, this year's Games hopefuls are sharpening their tools. A giant poster of Terry Spinks hangs above them as they train. It is only fitting that they have to look up to him.

He did what they now dream of doing. And he had but a week or so to get set.

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