LACHIE Stewart’s 10,000 metres triumph at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh was greeted with uproarious celebrations in countless households all over the country, and to this day is frequently recalled by seasoned enthusiasts as one of the great Scottish sporting moments. But in Stewart’s own household, as the hero of Meadowbank recalled yesterday, it barely registered.
Jack Stewart, a baker, had a relationship with his son’s sporting prowess that is hard to explain. Whatever pride he had, he kept it private. Stewart snr, who moved to Scotland from Ireland before the Second World War, was a scratch golfer and a keen footballer who went on to play in the Renton Pipe Band. So he clearly had no problem with the concepts of taking part, group activity or putting one’s talents to productive use.
But, for some reason that Lachie – christened Joseph Laughlin Stewart – never sought to understand, only once in his life did Jack turn out in the flesh to watch his son race. That was in the late 1960s at Hamilton Racecourse, where a 15-year-old Stewart won an age-group title in the Scottish Cross-Country Championships. This Saturday, the course stages its first cross-country running event in 45 years, and this landmark is what drove Stewart down memory lane in conversation with The Scotsman yesterday.
“I have very fond memories of running at Hamilton, not just because it was the home of Scottish cross-country running at the time but because it was the only place my father ever watched me win a race,” said the 70-year-old from Bonhill, near Dumbarton.
“He was quite a shy person, and he never got involved with my running. He was helpful to me – any time I needed shoes he just said ‘away out and get yourself a pair’. But there was one stage when I went two years without being beaten in a race, and he said to me one day: ‘You’ll get beaten one of these days, you can’t win them all.’ Sure enough, I was beaten in my next race.
“When I won the Commonwealth Games in 1970 he was at home, watching on television. My mother, she had to go into the kitchen because she couldn’t watch it. When I got home with the gold medal, my father was very quiet – he didn’t say much at all. He wasn’t the showy-off type – that’s just not the type of person he was. He died in 1974, aged 74, and that was the year when I gave up serious, competitive running.”
Stewart, whose son Glen ran the 10,000m in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, now spends much of his time making model boats to sail on Loch Lomond with his grandchildren. He has an abundance of stories for the fireside, too. Running at Hamilton will be a very different experience for this weekend’s 600-plus entrants in the West District Relays to what it was for Stewart and his contemporaries in 1968, the last time the Scottish Championships were held there.
“Back then, there were none of the buildings you see at the racecourse today. We used to get washed in the horse troughs. A slunge of water and that was it – put your clothes back on and get back into the minibus and home,” Stewart recalled.
“That was the hardiness of the long-distance runner in those days. There was one time when I just went straight home after winning the seniors event and never waited for the prizegiving. I don’t think the officials were too happy, but I decided to put my own welfare first. We were a hardy breed in those days but this was early March, and it was freezing. They couldn’t expect us just to stand there all day.”
Stewart remembers with the same clarity the heavy ground of his teenage introduction to running as the epic sprint down the final straight and away from Australia’s Ron Clarke, the world-record holder, that made him famous in 1970.
“That time I ran in front of my father at Hamilton was my third race. I was about 16 and it would have been my last year at school. The first was the Dunbartonshire Championships held at Brock Bath, next to Dumbarton station where there is now a leisure centre called the Meadow Centre.
“I won that, but the second one was an open race at Bellahouston and I came off the course and finished third. My third race was at Hamilton and I beat the guy who had won the race at Bellahouston. Hamilton was very much the home of Scottish cross-country in those days, before they started to move it around to places like Hawick, Dundee and Edinburgh.”
Stewart is delighted that the Commonwealth Games are returning to these shores next summer, believing in the power of proximity. “I am sure it will have a big effect on the number of youngsters who take up athletics. Every year after Wimbledon, there is a surge of interest in tennis.”
He believes there are Scots capable of repeating his gold-medal feat of 43 years ago (his native Scottish record of 28mins 11.71secs still stands). He is firmer in his conviction – a fairly unarguable conviction, in fact – that they don’t breed them like they used to.
“Now when you watch the World or European Cross-Country Championships on TV, it’s in a public park and they just do figure of eights – they don’t even leave the park,” he said. “For one race in Stirling we had to run over a ploughed field on a day when the ground was frozen. And we didn’t run up the furrows, we ran across them. It wasn’t very good for the ankles…”