NOT for the first time in its long and distinguished history, Hampden Park is about to undergo a makeover.
This Saturday’s League Two match between Queen’s Park and Peterhead will be the last at the national stadium before the ground closes its doors to football and begins its extensive preparations for the Commonwealth Games.
The multi-million pound project, due for completion in May, will enable Hampden to accommodate the track and field events at Glasgow 2014, as well as the closing ceremony. By rebuilding the running track on stilts, so that it is 1.9m higher than the last one, it will cover the front eight rows of seats and be wide enough to comply with international standards.
While some have questioned the wisdom of investing significant money in a temporary arrangement, others are commending Glasgow on its reluctance to be left with a so-called white elephant. By next November, the Hampden posts will be back up, the pitch relined and normal business resumed.
Brendan Foster, the former long-distance runner who won a gold medal at the 1978 Commonwealth Games, loves the idea. The Englishman, who is chairman of a marketing company that organises large, mass-participation sports events, believes that all future hosts of the Commonwealth Games will be persuaded to follow suit.
“The temporary track they’re putting in at Hampden is a revolution,” said Foster. “What happens then is you have sports stadiums around the world – American football stadiums, Aussie Rules – that can be transformed into an athletics stadium. The whole world of athletics will be looking at this event in Glasgow and saying ‘My God, aren’t they clever? That’s how you do it’. Instead of building a billion-pound stadium, use the stadium you’ve got at Hampden and put the track inside it. I mean, that’s a stroke of genius.”
If he knew the history of sport in Glasgow, he would not be surprised. Its successful bid to stage the Games was at once imaginative and economical, but it is not the first time Hampden, or indeed any of the city’s big football stadiums, have given themselves up to athletics.
Scottish football’s relationship with track and field can be traced to the late 19th century, when many of the country’s clubs were founded. At that time, their members participated in a variety of sports, from running and jumping to rowing and cricket. Not for nothing were Celtic called the Celtic Football and Athletic Company Ltd until 1994.
In the early days, they were amateurs, as were the athletics organisations, who held many of their events at football grounds. The old Hampden, later to become Cathkin Park, hosted the Scottish Amateur Athletics Championships as early as 1887. The same event was staged at Ibrox in 1885 and at Celtic Park in 1897.
Clubs across Scotland held annual sports days, some of which would attract huge crowds and an international field. After the transition to professionalism in 1893, the practice continued, mainly due to its commercial potential. Among the most remarkable tales is that of Alfie Shrubb, who broke seven world records in the same race during a meeting at Ibrox on Guy Fawkes Night, 1904.
The best distance runner of his generation, Shrubb was a wiry, moustachioed Englishman nicknamed the Little Wonder. His aim at Ibrox was to set a new world best in the 10-mile race, which he promptly did by also smashing the record for 6, 7, 8 and 9 miles. After all that, he took a deep breath and kept going, setting a new standard for 11 miles and for the distance covered in one hour. According to one account, Shrubb was held aloft by jubilant spectators, while bagpipes played in the crowd. “The cheers almost lifted me off my feet, and my hair seemed to go upright with excitement,” he said.
The following year, Shrubb was banned from athletics for accepting payment for running. His hour record stood for 49 years, but between 1905 and 1912 when, according to some, he should have become a multiple Olympic champion, he was in North America, competing for money in a series of bizarre races, some against horses.
Instead, it was a Scot who fulfilled the Olympic dream, but not without also excelling in some of his country’s finest football stadiums. Eric Liddell’s gold-medal winning 400m run at the 1924 Olympic Games was immortalised in Chariots of Fire, but before and after Paris, he was a regular competitor in sports days, watched by thousands at the likes of Ibrox, Tynecastle and Easter Road.
His biggest domestic victories were in the Scottish Championships, including a 220-yard gold medal at Celtic Park in 1923, followed by three more – for 110, 220 and 440 yards – at Hampden 12 months later. One eye-witness at that year’s 440-yard relay race described Liddell’s remarkable comeback in the anchor leg.
“He was left with a gap of 40 yards to make up. When making his effort, he had a habit of jerking back his head. I remarked to a bowler-hatted Glasgow man next to me… that Liddell would be hard put to win. My neighbour, an observant fellow, replied, ‘His heid’s no back yet’. With that, back went the head and Liddell left his opponent standing to win by 20 yards.”
In 1925, Liddell, right, was back at the Glasgow venue, again winning all three sprints. It was to be his last event on British soil. A few weeks later, when he left to become a missionary in China, hundreds of well-wishers turned up at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station to see him off.
The growth of professionalism meant that clubs depended increasingly on football, although Queen’s Park’s amateur status maintained Hampden’s link with athletics. It held the Scottish Championships every year between 1929 and 1951. A triangular international between Scotland, Ireland and England, first contested at Hampden in 1914, returned there in 1922, 1926 and 1930. The first Great Britain international to be held outside England – against Finland in 1935 – also came to the Glasgow ground. Elsewhere, the annual sports day was in decline, except at Ibrox, thanks to Rangers’ long-standing links with Clydesdale Harriers, and the influence of Bill Struth. A former athlete, the legendary manager, and later chairman, of the club ensured that the Rangers Sports flourished in the 1940s and 1950s.
Ibrox, which also staged the Glasgow Police Sports, would attract crowds of more than 50,000, as well as some of the world’s best athletes. In 1952, the field included Arthur Wint, Herb McKenley, George Rhoden and Lindy Remigino, all gold medallists at that year’s Olympic Games in Helsinki. Rangers, who boasted one of the best cinder running tracks in Scotland, made several thousand pounds from each event.
Only after Struth’s death in 1956 did the Rangers Sports tail off. Its swansong was in 1962, by which time football was leaving little room on the calendar. UEFA had been formed, there were midweek, floodlit matches, as well as European trips and World Cups to qualify for.
In the 1960s, athletics made an appearance as half-time entertainment at Old Firm games, the theory being that it would distract spectators from fighting with each other. Hugh Barrow, a member of the Victoria Park Athletics Club, has recalled competing at the Ne’er Day match of 1965.
“When you took to the track, what an atmosphere. Not even an Olympic champion would experience this. You had been cautioned from wearing either blue or green vests – and that was a pity, as my club wore blue and white hoops.
“Time was at a premium so you were on your marks immediately. The gun went – although you could hardly hear it – and you were off, heading round the Copland Road bend. Then came the first surprise: the track was lined with police, sometimes actually on the track, so it became an obstacle race.”
Nowadays, the sports community likes to think that it is modern, clever and innovative, but it has all been done before, especially in Glasgow. Multi-sports clubs are not the preserve of Barcelona, and next year will not be the first time that one of the city’s world-class football stadiums has been packed with athletics fans.
Ged O’Brien, author of Played in Glasgow, a history of sport in the city, goes so far as to say that world athletics would not be what it is now without the influence of Glaswegians in the 19th century. They had the biggest and best arenas in the world, but they also had the brains to utilise them.
“Glasgow is the most important sporting city in the world. Football just happens to be its most popular sport. What the pioneers did 130 years ago paved the way for regularised athletics and it was thanks to the genius of Glaswegians. The Commonwealth Games, I hope, will be seen in years to come as the apotheosis of that sporting brilliance.”