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Kellie Harrington: ‘I’m sorry for the tweet I put up. I’m sorry for the hurt that I caused’

The Olympic champion got embroiled in a Twitter controversy about immigration and compounded it by getting annoyed in an Off The Ball interview - now she says the presenter ‘was just doing his job’

Kellie Harrington wants to pick her words carefully. She wants to do everything carefully. At one point, she stops herself after the f and the u of a swear word that’s about to slip out and goes, “No, I can’t say that.” You remind her that people everywhere curse all the time and that it’s really no biggie. She shakes her head.

“I’m so careful now about what comes out of my mouth,” she says. “That never used to be the person that I was. I’m always cautious now of what I say. Even there, I was cursing and then I was going, ‘Jesus, I better not curse’ and then I was going, ‘Jesus, I better not say Jesus.’ That’s what’s in my head now a lot of the time.”

We’re in St Mary’s Boxing Club in Tallaght on a grey Wednesday morning. Her coach Noel Burke is sitting on the apron of the ring as we chat. He interjects just once, when Harrington briefly tears up and apologises for crying.

“It’s hugely emotional,” Burke says to her. “That’s why you’re crying. You’re a human being. You were affected big time because that’s not who you are. If it was who you were, you wouldn’t care. And you could spout a load of crap about it.”


It. It, in this context, covers a multitude. It covers a retweet she posted last October citing a notorious right-wing pundit on GB News talking about the death of a 12-year-old girl in France at the hands of an Algerian immigrant. It covers Harrington saying in her retweet that “Our own leaders need to take a listen to this”, from which it could reasonably be inferred that she was linking immigration to crime in Ireland.

It covers a disastrous interview with Off The Ball in March of this year, during which she was repeatedly asked about the tweet and refused to expand on what she meant by it. Most of all, it covers an impression of her that she doesn’t want out in the world, one she has struggled with for long stretches of this year.

“I’ve just been in a bit of a dark place with it,” she says. “I’m just sad. I’m sorry for the tweet I put up. I’m sorry for the hurt that I caused. I am sad. I’ve been sad because of it. It happened. People say things without thinking about the consequences of it. And that was what happened.”

On Monday, October 17th, 2022, Harrington was in Montenegro, competing in the European Championships. She had won her opening bout the previous Friday and followed it up with another win on the Saturday. But her quarter-final wasn’t until Wednesday and now she was bored. Normally, she wouldn’t have been anywhere near social media during a tournament but a four-day gap between fights left her with time to fill.

“I was scrolling on my phone. I actually don’t even know how that tweet ended up on my Twitter because I don’t follow it – someone who I follow must follow that. And I didn’t even look at what it said, I just looked at the video. It was about 12-year-old girl who had been led to her death, raped, murdered and chopped up and put into a suitcase. And that just filled me with anger and sadness.

“To be very honest with you, I never thought of the hurt that I could cause to anybody by retweeting it. I never thought of what I said in the retweet either. I just said it. It was a spur of the moment thing. I said it and I put it up on Twitter.”

The post she retweeted was a video of Dutch right-wing pundit Eva Vlaardingerbroek going on GB News and using the murder of French schoolgirl Lola Daviet to spout unsubstantiated claims about immigrant crime in France. Vlaardingerbroek said, without evidence, that she thought this was the 12th murder of a child by immigrants in France in 2022. “Another young European girl sacrificed on the altar of mass migration,” was how she termed it.

Within minutes of posting, Harrington received private messages from people she knew and respected, who told her that by boosting the likes of GB News, she was aligning herself with some pretty dubious people. “They weren’t being aggressive to me, they were just trying to educate me a little bit,” Harrington says.

“I had basically painted a group of people with the same paintbrush that people like me, from my community, from my area have been and are still being painted with for many years. So I know what that’s like. And that’s exactly what I had done with my retweet. I didn’t realise that at the time.

“So I deleted the tweet. I took it down and I apologised personally in the messages to people who I had hurt. They understood and they said, ‘Look, we’re all learning.’ We’re all human, you know? There’s good and bad in everyone.

“And that was that. It was deleted and I moved on. There was nothing said about it, that was it. I didn’t hear a thing about it afterwards. Because anybody who knows me knows what I am and what I do. I didn’t know the journalist in the tweet. I didn’t know her. I didn’t know what GMB [GB News] is. It was just on my Twitter.”

That was Monday night. By the weekend, she had won the tournament outright, finally emulating Katie Taylor’s full house of European, World and Olympic gold medals. Her autobiography, co-written with Roddy Doyle, came out the following week and though she did various bits of publicity for it, the issue of the GB News tweet never came up.

It wasn’t until five months later that the reckoning arrived. Harrington was at a sponsor’s press event, part of which was an interview with Shane Hannon of Off The Ball. When Hannon brought up the tweet, her response was to go on the offensive, accusing the presenter of coming with an agenda and hanging her out to dry. The video went viral and though she later released a statement to try and take the heat out of it, the damage was done.

“In fairness to the lads in Off The Ball, that’s their job,” she says now. “That’s what they have to do. They’re journalists. They have to do what they have to do. On that day, I just wasn’t expecting it. I was just shocked. And I reacted quite badly. At the time I didn’t think I reacted badly. I just thought, ‘I’m just not going to answer it.’ But once I looked back at it, I do think I reacted badly.

“I don’t blame him for asking the question. I was annoyed at myself that I didn’t answer it. I was totally shocked that it was coming back up again. I’m not known for politics or for anything other than sport. So I didn’t think that question was going to come back. I know I had put it out there. But I had deleted it. And I thought, ‘Right, that’s gone.’ But it wasn’t. It came back to bite me.”

The walls came tumbling down. She found herself paralysed. This was a situation of her own making, in which she had inadvertently become a lightning rod for an immigration debate that she had neither desire to get caught up in nor the expertise to see off.

She became weaponised by all sides of a question that has no neat and tidy answer. Some of her supporters felt let down by what they saw as a betrayal of the openness and diversity she had always stood up for. On the flipside, some of the worst people on the internet hailed her as a hero and gave her plenty of you-tell-’em-Kellie backing.

But tell-’em what, exactly? She put out that statement to get through the day but in the weeks that followed, she came under pressure to come out and be honest about what she felt about immigration. To answer questions and let everyone know where she stood.

All of which sounds reasonable enough, in theory. In practice, it terrified her. It would terrify most people. Could you do it? Somebody sets a tape recorder under your nose and starts interrogating your thoughts and theories about immigration – would you trust yourself to tiptoe through the minefield unscathed? Plenty of people talk about starting honest conversations, safe in the knowledge they won’t ever be asked to come to conclusions.

But in the end, she knows she brought this on herself. And that this is the consequence.

“I can talk all day about boxing. It’s what I’m used to. I’m used to training, I’m used to boxing, I’m used to nutrition. I’m used to stepping into the ring and when the bell goes, going out. And if I throw two digs and take three back, I’m used to being able to step back, breathe, think about what’s after happening and to go again.

“But in that moment, in October, when I saw that tweet, I didn’t step back, breathe and think. I just reacted. That’s what it was. Every action has a reaction and my reaction was to repost that. And then that reaction got another reaction and I deleted it. I was genuinely sorry for the upset and hurt that I caused to people. And I’m still sorry.”

She knows who she is. She doesn’t have solutions for how governments should deal with refugees or asylum seekers or migrants of any kind. She couldn’t begin to tell you where to start if you’re formulating a policy or trying to find a fix for something that feels broken in every country in western Europe. But she knows how she sees the world and who she is in it.

“I believe that Ireland is for everybody. It should be a place to feel safe and to feel welcome. And that’s regardless of your skin colour, your religion, your gender, your sexuality, or anything like that. Ireland is known as being so welcoming. You should be able to feel safe here. And I’m all for that.

“We travel away boxing all the time and that is what comes across to the rest of the world everywhere we go and I want us to have that forever. I’m very, very proud of where I come from. I want our country to be known forever as the country and the people that are very, very welcoming. A country that will help anybody who needs help. That’s what I believe.

“I try to help everyone. My help for people doesn’t stop at what race they are, or what gender they’re from, or anything like that. If someone needs help then they’re getting help. If they’re a good person, they’re getting it. It all depends on whether you’re a good person or you’re not. That’s where I come from. It’s nothing to do with what race you are or where you’re from or anything like that.

“I do stuff in my community, to help everybody in my community. And we have a very diverse community, all different nationalities. It’s not just to help a certain nationality, it’s to help everybody. At Christmas, we have 350 families through the doors, all different nationalities, genders, all different creeds. That’s who I am.

“And I don’t want to be going around saying. ‘Look at me, look at all the things I do.’ That’s not it. I believe that if I have any sort of pull in terms of getting the city council to do something for an event or of getting a bit of money to go towards doing a fun day, then that’s what I should be doing. That’s where my energy and time should be going into. I’m not all into politics and all that. I leave that to the politicians to deal with because I just have no clue.”

In the midst of it all, she got back to what she’s best at. She and Noel got back in the ring and got on with qualifying for Paris next year. Not that it was straightforward. She’s 33 now and she finds making weight at 60kg much more of a trial than when she was in her 20s.

That aspect of it came to a head in the Czech Republic in May when she fought in a tournament that required her to make weight every day for four days straight. By the end of it, she was considering walking away altogether. Or at least throwing the words out into the world to see how they sounded.

“I won a close fight in the final, a split decision versus Sweden. But I felt absolutely banjaxed after it. Afterwards, I actually thought that was it, I’m done now. I actually got pains in my legs and arms because of dehydration – it felt like growing pains. Growing pains at 33!

“I was getting cramps in my legs for a few days after it. And I thought it was the end of my boxing career. I genuinely thought that for a few days. I just couldn’t face having to do that, to make that weight if this is what it’s doing to my body to have to make it.

“But the thing was, it was only because there were no rest days at that tournament. Usually, you’d make weight, have your fight and then get a day to rehydrate before the next one. But because I was fighting four days straight, I never got to rehydrate fully and it meant I wasn’t thinking clearly either.”

The fog cleared though and she kept plugging, qualifying for the Paris Olympics a month later in Poland. The gold medal fight at 60kg is on August 6th, 2024 – all going to plan, that will be the day she retires from international boxing. She can’t wait.

“If it had been four years to the next Olympics, I don’t know if I would have kept going,” she says. “But three years felt okay. I’m looking forward to retirement. Really looking forward to it, with Mandy and the dogs and seeing what life brings. Looking forward to moving back into town, looking forward to life after boxing. I’ve been boxing for 20 years. That’s a lot, you know?”

It is. And for most of it, she was nobody. Outside of amateur boxing’s tiny circle, nobody cared what she did or what she said for the longest time. Success changed all that – you don’t get to become world and Olympic champion without gathering people along the way. Her biggest fear is that she has lost those people. That one stupid retweet and one terrible interview have cost her the goodwill she spent all those years building up.

“That is important to me,” she says. “That people know that I’m not that person. That’s what ate me up for months, the fact that someone might think that I’m all of those things that people were saying on Twitter about me. I just know that I would hate to think that anyone would think any different of me.

“I would rather people not know me for being an Olympic champion but to know me for being a good, kind person.”