Having sown the seeds years ago, the investment made in coaching elite young Scottish athletes is bearing fruit, according to Liz McColgan.
The former Olympic 10,000m silver medallist and arguably one of Scotland’s best ever runners, McColgan is now a coach and an ardent advocate for her sport. And, having got to know a number of the youngsters who have already been named in the Great Britain team for this summer’s Rio Olympics, and coached several others, she says she is genuinely excited about their prospects.
But that, she says, is down to years of preparation and the necessary investment of time and money in ensuring their progress.
“I’m just really excited about the numbers of Scots coming through in distance running. I was chair of Scottish Athletics and we had the Liz McColgan Endurance Squad – with a lot of these kids in the nucleus of that squad. So, to see them now making the Olympics, it shows me that Scottish Athletics were doing things right back then. The investment made in coaches and these athletes has been great.
“I think just the way they’ve developed over the years is really, really exciting for me. I’m really passionate about my running and, when I saw these kids at 14 and 16, I knew they had the talent. To see them fulfilling their abilities now is amazing.”
With many looking back to the ‘good old days’ when McColgan and Yvonne Murray were vying for medals in the higher echelons of the sport, she is less nostalgic about the past when she looks at what the current crop of talent could produce on the world and Olympic stage. “I think you need to look at the numbers of Scottish athletes making the Olympic team and appreciate it,” she said. “We’re terrible for people saying: ‘Oh, I remember when …it was the good old days.’ Well, the good old days are here now – and I’m just pleased to be here to see it.
“The change and turnaround has been remarkable, because it’s not just the number of athletes we can be proud of. None of these athletes is just going to make the team. Some of them have a real opportunity to win medals, which is amazing.
“We have got talented kids. I’ve said all along that we had talented kids, we just didn’t nurture them and train them right.”
Echoing the sentiment that success takes time and that youngsters need to be given the right support and long-term strategy, Mark Munro, new interim chief executive with governing body Scottish Athletics, says that club development remains the cornerstone of the sport in this country.
“I think it is a very exciting time for the sport in Scotland with the European Championships, Rio Olympics and Paralympics nearly upon us, as well as host of off-track events this summer,” said the man who has stepped into the role following the departure of Nigel Holl to UK Athletics. “There is a high interest in potential successes by our athletes and it’s a great opportunity for the sport to capitalise on this high media interest.
“In terms of the business and development of the sport, the direction and strategy are clear: we will continue to build on the existing work and ensure clubs sit at the heart of what we do. I firmly believe we need to continue to strengthen key areas within the sport: whether that’s events, performance programmes or development projects for clubs, coaches and officials, they are all crucial to the sport moving forwards.”
But identifying the elite athletes and providing the funding and the right environment for them to train and improve will remain key, according to McColgan. “Unless you identify the kids at the right age and put them into the right training programmes, you are always going to be playing catch-up. You may get a person who comes through and is happy just to be on the team. But, especially here in Scotland, we’ve got a couple of real starlets with great opportunities to get medals in the next couple of years. That is testament to their ability and belief.
“Laura Muir is a tremendously talented girl. Lynsey Sharp is a tremendously talented girl. Eilidh [Doyle] has an opportunity. The list goes on.”
And, having moved up from track events to tackle the marathon herself in the latter stages of her career, the Scottish star, who is now based in Qatar, says Scottish prospects in road races should not be under-estimated. Brothers Callum and Derek Hawkins have both guaranteed their places in the Rio event, as has Tsegai Tewelde, thanks to their status as the top three home nations finishers in the London Marathon.
And while the blistering heat of Brazil could work against them and others are faster on paper, McColgan, who won the New York, Tokyo and London marathons during her illustrious running career, believes people should remain optimistic. “Anything can happen in a championship marathon,” she said. “You don’t actually have to be the fastest person to win it. It’s going to be hot, it’s a tough course. But these boys are tough. You know, it’s an opportunity for them to open the door and grasp the chance. And the great thing is that like a lot of our athletes, they are young enough to be doing this for years. That’s very exciting.
“The theory was that you were an 800 metre runner, then you couldn’t run any faster so you moved to 1500, then the 3000, 5000, 10k and finally marathon. People need to realise that marathon running is an event in itself. Just because you are a good 5k or 10k runner, that doesn’t make you a good marathon runner. Mo Farah found that out when he moved to the marathon. He didn’t show the same attributes for the marathon as he did for the 10k.
“You get a lot of people who were proper, out-and-out endurance runners and it’s great for [the Hawkins brothers] that they’re making teams. Marathon running needs people like Callum, who is just 23, athletes who can take it on to the next step. For too long in the UK, we wrapped them in cotton wool and only gave them a chance at the marathon when they were older.”