The revelation that Glasgow’s iconic red road flats will play a central, but brief, part in the tournament’s opening ceremony was not the only explosive news concerning the Commonwealth games today.
Confirmation of Lee McConnell’s retirement is of seismic importance since it robs the games of one of its home heroines. The 400m runner is also among the most recognisable faces. The fact Scotland’s most decorated athlete of the last decade will not now be competing means there will be another great absence on the skyline when the Games begin later this year.
However, McConnell today stressed she is completely comfortable with a decision reached in recent days when it became clear that her fitness fight had been lost. Now 35, she always said she should leave it until “March or April” to make a decision, and she has. She does intend to still be present at Glasgow 2014, just not in a competing capacity.
“I still feel I will be part of Glasgow,” she insisted. “It is now just about changing my focus.”
McConnell will likely occupy a commentating role, where she has already started to impress.
“I was there as part of the bid team, so I definitely want to play a part – even if it is just as a spectator,” she added. “But I intend to be there!”
At present she is concentrating on motherhood, having given birth to a son, Ethan, in October. He can be heard gurgling contentedly in the background as McConnell explains why she has called a halt to her career with a Glasgow-hosted Commonwealth games just around the corner.
“I didn’t want to let anyone down,” she said. “In the last couple of weeks it has become quite clear that I have run out of time. If it had been later in the year, or next year even, great. It has really been a time factor as opposed to anything else.
“There would have been more of a chance for me if it had been later in the year. I definitely would not be calling it a day just now. I would have kept going for another few months to see if I could get over these injuries. It has just got to the stage where I have missed too much and I don’t have enough time to put it back in the bank. Unfortunately these injuries are hindering me getting back on the track. If I had managed to get back on the track by this stage it might be a different story.”
McConnell stresses that, because of Ethan, she no longer has the option of being selfish. While not normally rated as a quality in a human being, self-obsession is necessary if you want to excel as an athlete. “You need to be selfish in order to perform well,” McConnell said. “You need to dedicate all the time you have to physio and to recovery and things like that. It would take up too much time and that is time I want to spend with Ethan. Your priorities do change.”
Might it have been a different story if she had not fallen pregnant? She is not sure. “I was always reaching Glasgow at the end of my career,” McConnell said. “It was always going to be a tough ask with or without a baby.” But the relaxin hormone that is produced by the body both before and following pregnancy has had the effect of loosening her ligaments, she explains.
“You need tension in the ligaments in order to help make contact with the ground,” she said. “When you do not have proper contact with the ground it is putting too much strain on my Achilles. And then it is putting strain on the lower back, which I have always had issues with. They are pretty much injuries I have always had in the past but they have always been manageable,” she continued. “And they don’t usually flare up until I am in a high intensity period of training. Just now I am in a low intensity period. And it is making it impossible to get the sessions done that I need to get done.”
While sport has the capacity for providing fairytale endings, they are not the birthright of the athlete. Sometimes the reality impinges on the dream of saying goodbye in what would seem like a perfect setting. Sir Chris Hoy and now McConnell have resisted the obvious temptation of battling on until Glasgow. Both have reached the Zen state of knowing when their race has been run. This is a triumph in itself. She cannot deny that bidding farewell at Hampden Park was “very tempting”. This prospect partly motivated her return to full-time training just weeks after Ethan’s birth. If it hadn’t been for Glasgow, she would not even have considered returning following a career where she has already won medals at three of the four major championships.
Besides her two Commonwealth medals earned in Manchester and Melbourne, McConnell has also finished on the podium in the European and world championships.
Of course, the farcical circumstances which means she has not retired with medals from all four major competitions remains a regrettable episode, but McConnell herself appears to have come to terms with the International Olympic Committee’s decision last year to allow the United States’ 4x400m team to keep their gold medal from the 2004 Athens Olympics, despite Crystal Cox, who ran in one of the heats, later admitting to doping. McConnell was in the British team expected to be upgraded to bronze after finishing in fourth place.
“I have drawn a line under that,” she says. “That medal would have been an actual medal in my hand. But you are robbed of the actual moment on the podium. To be honest, it would not have meant as much to me as the other medals I had. Yes, it would be an Olympics medal and would complete the collection. But it would never have been the same. You don’t have the euphoria of the time. It is not about the medal, a single solid object. And that’s all I would have got.
“Any career has its highs and lows,” she added. “It has been a rollercoaster ride. I have been lucky that it has spanned so long – from 2001 I have been at every major championship to 2012. There are very few athletes who have managed to do that in their career. I have enjoyed it all, met fantastic people, and been to some fantastic countries, and got to experience some brilliant cultures. Overall it has been great.”
She expects those such as Eilidh Child and Eilish McColgan to carry the baton for Scottish athletics for years to come. “There is more coming through now than when I started, and more competing in the British team as well – sometimes I found it was only me. Now we are getting a handful of them [Scots] in the team. And I am sure there will be others under the radar who will deliver a special performance in Glasgow. Because when I delivered in Manchester for Scotland I don’t think anybody really expected it. It is not about the current stars, it is about the ones who are about to produce.”
After looking to the future, she finishes on another philosophical note: “In athletics, you can’t go on forever. There is always a point at which you have to finish and, in my case, move into motherhood.” Retirement usually means taking things easier. She knows she hasn’t chosen that option.