WHEN Allan Wells first appeared before a packed arena at a Commonwealth Games, no one took any notice.
He went about his business then went home and, but for the merestmention of his name in the programme, there is no official record of his presence.
No one who cast an eye on him then could have guessed that, within a decade, he would be Olympic champion. This was 1970, when the Games were held in Edinburgh for the first time, and the teenage Wells was no more than a track-and-field volunteer, helping set up the equipment.
He was not there at all four years later, when the Games moved on to Christchurch and he failed to win selection as a long jumper. But he made up for that in 1978, winning gold in the 200 metres and the sprint relay, and taking silver in the 100m. And, another four years on, by which time he had triumphed at the Moscow Olympics, he won two more golds and a bronze.
So Wells’ place in the history ofScotland at the Commonwealth Games is secure. One of our greatest ever competitors, more recently he has been a team ambassador, inspiring a new generation of athletes to believe they can take on the world and win.
It was no surprise then that onMonday night he was the one asked to carry the Queen’s Baton on board the Royal Yacht Britannia for the officialreception to mark the arrival of the relay in Scotland.
Since leaving Edinburgh for Surrey 30 years ago, Wells has returned to thecapital by air, by road and by rail, but this was something new; arriving by launch from the Forth, baton borne aloft as he was piped on board the Royal Family’s former floating home.
He is 62 now, a lighter, slighter figure than in his pumping-iron pomp, with a few more grey hairs, but otherwise undiminished. And he remembers Meadowbank 1970 as if it were yesterday.
“I was a volunteer in 1970, although I didn’t do very much, to be honest,” said Wells in between arriving on board the Britannia and receiving a humorouson-stage grilling from master of ceremonies Gavin Hastings. “I gained a lot from it though.
“As an individual involved in athletics, I looked at what these guys were doing on the track, how they prepared and so on. To not just simulate them, but actually go on and win in the Games, achieving the same levels, was fantastic.
“The problem is I had gone away on holiday just before the Games, came back, and wasn’t really doing much. But I learned an awful lot from seeing theathletes up close, seeing the performances. It was fantastic. You couldn’t ask for anything better.
“Having experienced both sides, I would have preferred to be in the race, of course. It’s such a lift. Watching in 1970, then achieving the dream of competing eight years later, I couldn’t believe it.”
The received wisdom about Wells’s role at those Games says that his job was to rake the long-jump pit. As it turns out, this is no more than a romanticised tale with little basis in reality.
The origin of the rumour is understandable. For a start, Wells was primarily a long-jumper himself back then, would go on to be Scottish indoor champion at the field event, and his hero was Lynn Davies, the 1964 Olympic champion who successfully defended his Commonwealth title at Meadowbank.
The group of volunteers that included Wells would gather by the long-jump pit while waiting for the hurdles to be brought out. From there, it was but a short mental hop to deciding that his task must have involved the long jump. But no. Not a bit of it.
“I must have been 18 at the time and my job was putting out the hurdles on the track, especially the 400m.” heexplained. “I was just giving technical help. I’d like to have raked the sand pit, but never did. That’s an urban myth. But it did give me the chance to see the Games first hand.
“Running was in my veins, and seeing it at close quarters, with a free pass, was incredible. I was very privileged. I’d never have had the money to get in. I was a second-year engineering apprentice at Brown Brothers, straight from school.”
As fate would have it, Wells was again only an onlooker – and purely a spectator rather than a voluntary assistant this time – when the Games returned toEdinburgh in 1986.
He had missed the whole of the 1985 season because of an operation on his toe, but was training hard and making a decent return to form in the early stages of the following season.
Having been asked by Scotland’s selectors to prove his fitness, he ran 10.45secs for the 100m in Belfast, and thought that, while the time was modest by his own high standards, it was enough to show that he was on the way back. Given a month or two more to recover his top-end speed, Wells reckoned that, if no more, he would certainly do enough not to let his country down.
Instead, he believes to this day that the selectors let him down. He had been promised a place in the team, and had even been kitted out with the Scotland uniform. But then the selectors met and voted against him.
Having achieved so much in track and field, he felt he deserved the chance toattempt a little bit more – for the sake of the Scottish team rather than himself. Hisomission was therefore a cause of resentment, not only because he proved later in the season that he had indeedreturned to world-class form, but also because someone he trusted went back on their word.
“I did what I was told to do. I was told that I would be selected. I’m being honest, I was told I would be picked. But then they had a vote on it. I actually had the case full of the Scotland team athletics gear, the jerseys and everything that all the other athletes got – that’s how much they were telling me I was going to be taking part – and I gave it back. You know, the vote was 21 against and six for. It must have been some big selection panel back then.
“I got a phone call from Mike McLean, who had competed in the 800m in 1970 and was on the selectors’ panel, and he said: ‘Allan, I’m really sorry. I tried everything I could to get you in the Games – but you’ve not been selected’.
“I did ask him if a certain party had voted for me. He said no – and thatcertain party said he would, so that was the most annoying thing. It’s what Iremember most.”
Ironically, the man chosen to carry the Queen’s Baton into the stadium at the opening ceremony was Wells. Meadowbank roared as the sprinter appeared on the track that evening, in his navyScotland vest and white shorts – atantalising glimpse of the country’sbiggest athletics star, deemed good enough to carry off a bit of theatre but not to compete in the real action.
In the absence of Wells at those Games, Elliot Bunney and Jamie Henderson reached the final of the 100m, with the former finishing fifth.
In the 200m, Brian Whittle and George McCallum were both eliminated in the semi-finals. The sprint relay was more successful, as the quartet comprising Bunney, Henderson, McCallum andCameron Sharp took bronze, but a fit Wells would have at least given them a better chance of a higher-placed finish – and he proved that he was a fit Wells within days of the curtain coming down on those troubled 1986 Games.
This was at Gateshead, in a meeting featuring some of thebiggest names from the Edinburgh Games, including the two Canadians who had ended up on top of the podium in the sprints.
He said: “I competed on the Tuesday after the Games finished – they’d wound up on the Sunday – and I beat both the sprint gold medallists, AtleeMahorn in the 200m and Ben Johnson in the 100m.
“I know that Ben Johnson wasn’treally bothered, but I still achieved the two wins and showed what I might have done in Edinburgh. I was asked at the time if it was egg on the faces of theselectors, and if I remember, I just said it was up to them.
“I was prepared to run in theCommonwealth Games and it’s sad that I wasn’t allowed to. When you consider I had four Commonwealth gold medals, one silver and a bronze, and I was theOlympic champion from 1980, it just didn’t make sense to me.
“I look back and feel that I could have added to my medals in the Commonwealths. I really do. But ultimately it’s history. If I look back to how I started, to think I would one day even win one bronze medal would have been aphenomenal thing.
“I went to the Games in ‘86, even though I wasn’t competing. I went to watch. It was second nature to me.
“But the Games were an anti-climax because the African countries weren’t there. That was a big loss to the Games in Edinburgh.”
The boycott by the Africannations – a protest against the apartheidregime in South Africa – only exacerbated the financial difficulties faced by those Games. If 1970 was a triumph, 1986 was a fiasco that caused lasting damage toEdinburgh’s reputation.
When the time came to bid for 2014, Commonwealth Games Scotland gave careful and balanced consideration to the virtues of both Edinburgh and Glasgow, but in the country at large there were few who doubted that the country’s largest city deserved its chance. Certainly, having felt that Glasgow deserved to be hosts in 1986, Wells is happy that itsopportunity is coming at last.
He said: “I thought at the time it was a shame that Glasgow hadn’t been awarded the Games in ‘86 – but, as it turned out, that was just as well for Glasgow, because it was devalued, especially in the distance events. It’ll be so different this time. It’s going to be phenomenal. When this baton goes to Glasgow, it’s going to be mental.
“Glasgow has always been secondbehind Edinburgh in not having hosted the Games, so here’s an opportunity for the city to showcase what it’s all about. I’ve been involved as an ambassador, I’ve seen the volunteers, helped induct them over two days, and enjoyed it thoroughly.
“The focus now is on July 23 [when the opening ceremony takes place at Celtic Park]. The week and a half after that is going to be just amazing.”
As far as many people are concerned, the Games are going to be all the more amazing if multiple Olympic champion Usain Bolt turns up to take part.
The Jamaican has said for some time that he wants to participate but will leave the decision to his coach, who plans his schedule – and that was the answer Wells and his wife Margot received when they tried to persuade Bolt to come.
Wells said. “I spoke to him at the end of last year, at the IAAF dinner they had inMonaco. Myself and Margot were invited over to this big dinner, because they were having a 1980s theme.
“I had the opportunity to speak to Usain, and the first thing I said was: ‘Are you coming to the Commonwealth Games?’ He said: ‘I want to come but it’ll be up to my coach. I really do want to come.’ I told him: ‘Look, if you come to Glasgow, you’ll be greeted by the warmest crowd ever. You will not be let down.’
“So I’ve done my wee job; planted the seed. Hopefully he does come toGlasgow.”
That quiet word with Bolt may have been only a wee job, but it has to be said that Wells’s contribution over the years has been of an altogether greatermagnitude.