Ballet-dancing plumber Harry Garside boxing for rare Australian medal

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<span>Photograph: Luis Robayo - Pool/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Luis Robayo - Pool/Getty Images

Harry Garside is boxing against stereotypes in Tokyo. The 24-year-old plumber from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs is fighting in the men’s lightweight semi-final on Friday afternoon. But whatever the outcome against two-time world champion Andy Cruz, Garside has already made history, and an impact.

He will soon become the first Australian to win an Olympic boxing medal in more than three decades (with a bronze assured if he loses against Cuba’s Cruz). Garside has also landed a blow on outdated gender stereotypes in the traditionally hyper-masculine sport.

Related: Life lessons I’ve learned from boxers? Control your aggression and forgive your foes | Adrian Chiles

After winning his quarter-final in a split-decision over Kazakh boxer Zakir Safiullin, Garside removed his gloves to reveal painted nails – a white base with a band of colour across each, to make a rainbow. “I got these today,” he told journalists. “I just want to break stereotypes, to be honest. I’m a big one for that.”

Garside has made a habit of doing things differently. He incorporated ballet into his boxing training, and his dancing feet can be seen on full display in the ring. “I’m not going to lie, I’d always wanted to try ballet,” he recently said. “I say I do it for boxing, but really, I have always wanted to dance. Ballet’s very tough, the power through the legs that they generate, the coordination, everything is just so extreme.”

With ballet and painted nails, Garside wants to be his own man and not worry about societal expectations. “There’s a lot of people out there who feel like they have to be something because they’re a male or a female,” he said. “I’m all about just being different.” Garside volunteers as a mentor with the Reach Foundation to empower others.

But he also admitted he stopped short of expressing himself at the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony last month. “I was going to wear a dress to the Opening Ceremony, but I didn’t want to offend anyone,” he said. “Some people might take it the wrong way, so this is my way of showcasing something.”

Since the sport was introduced at the 1904 Olympics, Australia has never won a gold medal in boxing. Grahame Cheney came close at the 1988 Games in Seoul, losing to Soviet boxer Vyacheslav Yanovskiy in the final. Previously the nation’s best was bronze – one in 1956, two in 1960.

The Australian boxer already has a gold medal in his cabinet, won at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 on the Gold Coast. Following that win, he told journalists: “I’m just an ordinary bloke. I’m back plumbing, back on the shovel and back with the boys.” He is also a six-time Australian national champion.

Garside has already guaranteed a return to the podium for Australia after a 33 year wait; in Olympic boxing, both losing semi-finalists receive a bronze rather than fighting off for it. But Garside wants to punch his way to a gold medal. With an eye on the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane and the potential that medal success in the sport in Tokyo could spur a new generation, Garside knows he is boxing for more than just himself on Friday.

Related: Sign up for the Tokyo 2020 daily briefing: the best of the Olympics and Paralympics

“It’d be massive, mate,” he said. “Obviously we just got the Games in 2032 and I really want to do it for the next generation of fighters. You get a medal and more funding comes their way and leading into a home Games Australia can win a few medals as long as I win this one.”

Garside may embrace difference and rejoice in punching back at stereotypes. But like every Olympian in Tokyo, he is fuelled by the prospect of standing on top of the podium. “I want the gold, I don’t want no bronze or silver, I want that gold,” he said.

If Garside can beat Cruz, he will face either American Keyshawn Davis or Armenia’s Hovhannes Bachkov. It would take two extraordinary performances for Garside to better the Cuban former champion on Friday and then win the gold medal bout. But his journey to date has made clear that Garside lives for the unexpected.

As he posted on Instagram prior to the Olympics: “The universe gave me so many opportunities to give in on my dreams, you’ll never stop me.”

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