Terry Spinks: Boxer who won Olympic gold in Melbourne

After he retired from boxing, the Krays wanted the former apprentice jockey to ride their horses for them

Terry Spinks was only 18 when he won Olympic gold in Melbourne. He turned professional at 19, won the British featherweight title at 22 and quit boxing when he was still only 24. In 1956 he was the last member of the British team to make the long journey by boat to the Olympics after a late, late selection process meant that he was working as a binman in Canning Town when the rest of the team left. It also meant that his Olympic blazer was several sizes too big: "It was like a bleeding overcoat on me."

The gold medal-winning victory was sensational and even more impressive considering that the West Ham boxer had lost three of his five previous international contests, including a couple of boxing lessons in Moscow. Spinks won five times in Melbourne and returned home to a street party; he turned professional a few months later, dubbed The Golden Boy and looking more like a 12-year-old child than a veteran of just over 200 amateur contests.

His profile soared as he fought his way to the British title and his first wedding, to the gorgeous Val at St James' Church in Piccadilly in 1961, was filmed by Pathé and shown in cinemas. However, Spinks fought at a time when fighters had less protection and by the time he forced Bobby Neil to quit in their first British title fight he had already lost four times. Neil, incidentally, underwent emergency surgery after the fight and narrowly survived to become a trainer of champions.

In 1961 Spinks was retired by his corner after 10 rounds against Howard Winstone, who would go on and win a world title, and lost his British belt. Spinks refused to make excuses for his performance and the celebrated scribe George Whiting wrote an early obituary line after leaving the beaten fighter's dressing room: "A fair enough salute by a beaten champion who never squawked in his lively life." Spinks was still only 23, and the pubs, betting shops, mini-cab firms – and his brush with terrorists at the Munich Olympics – had not yet shaped the extraordinary little man's grand life.

Spinks in retirement was still an attraction to what was left of "the fancy", an old-fashioned term that perfectly captures the company he moved in. He had briefly trained as a jockey and the Krays wanted him to ride their horses; the twins were part of his ringside faithful. In 2000 Spinks, who had still not received royal acknowledgement of his Olympic success, told me that the association with the notorious killers went against him. "A lot of people say the reason I've not got it is because I was photographed with the Krays – but everybody was photographed with them." One of the brothers was said to have a picture of little Terry in his wallet.

In 1972 Spinks had somehow managed to land the job as head coachof the South Korean boxing team at the Munich Olympics. He had been training fighters and would go on to work with Johnny Cheshire, Wally Anglis and others later in the 1970s. In Munich there seems to have been a cornerof the village devoted to waywardCockneys: Spinks joined the London amateur boxing legends Mick Carney from the Fitzroy Lodge and Repton's Tony Burns. The entertainer Kenny Lynch, who was rumoured to have had the ID card of a Russian gymnast, was also there. "Anybody could get in and out," said Carney, who was training the Canadian team.

The laughs died one morning and Spinks had a role to play in sport's darkest days. Out running, he noticed some people as he returned: "I saw this little mob with guns as I was coming back from a run and I ducked away and got on the phone to the security." It was not long after the brutality of the Munich massacre that I met him for the first time; he sold me a gumshield at the Lonsdale shop in Brixton. A year later I met him again after an amateur fight and held his gold medal.

Spinks ran a pub and briefly followed his beloved father, Titch, into the gambling business as a bookmaker. Both adventures were a disaster and by the middle of the 1980s, after another failed marriage; Spinks was given a week to live after a drinking session ended again in a hospital bed. The fallen Golden Boy weighed less than his fighting weight from 30 years earlier.

It was at this point that his cousin, Rosemary Ellmore, entered his life again after an absence of about 20 years to save him from destruction. Spinks spent some time in a hospital for people with brain injuries before moving in with Rosemary and her family. He wasteetotal from that day, gained weight, and in 2002 he finally had an appointment with the Queen to collect his long-overdue MBE.

During the last decade Spinks had been a regular at meetings of the London Ex-Boxers Association, a vital lifeline for ancient and lonely fighters, and as his health failed he still appeared at ringside. His old West Ham gym is minutes from the site of the 2012 Olympic boxing and there were plans to make him part of the spectacle this summer.

Terence Spinks, boxer: born London 28 February 1938; MBE 2002; married; died 26 April 2012.

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