Scots athletes respond to Olympic Games challenge

Beth Potter will run in the 10,000 metres at the Olympic Games. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
Beth Potter will run in the 10,000 metres at the Olympic Games. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
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It has always been about strength in depth. That is why sportscotland threw down a gauntlet and that is why scottishathletics picked it up.

Having done that, the benefits look likely to be a bigger contingent of Scots in the Great Britain team heading to Rio for this summer’s Olympics and the added bonus of a greater tactical advantage for them when they are there.

Heading into this weekend’s British Championships and Olympic trials in Birmingham, Scottish athletes are in prime positions to book their place on the plane and justify the various projects introduced by the governing body as they sought to bolster participation and, ultimately, the returns at the elite level.

“We have not had more than six athletes go to an Olympic Games in the last eight Olympic Games. Therefore sportscotland gave us a funding target of getting at least six athletes to these games,” said scottishathletics director of coaching, Rodger Harkins. “We already have four, so we are in a good position heading into the weekend. Anything more than six – and I’m sure we will get more than six – would be great but to put any specific number on it would be unfair. If I said we could get ten and we only get nine then nine would be seen as a failure and that wouldn’t be right because, in actual fact, we would be better than the six we were initially targeting.”

The last time the country contributed more than six athletes to the GB Olympic squad was in 1980. Since then they have weighed in with six on two occasions but the most recent was the 1988 staging. This time, three Scots have already been selected to run in the men’s marathon, while Beth Potter will compete in the 10,000m, and there is the possibility of reaching double figures this weekend.

Admitting they are in a good place, Harkins is more cautious when it comes to predicting what can be achieved in Brazil. “That is a difficult one, because the majority of events we will have athletes in are going to be middle-distance and endurance events and they can be tactical. They are never run on times or on rankings, it is just how the race unfolds and how people respond to it.

“You have seen in the past how Lynsey [Sharp] has been able to take advantage of that when it falls right for her, and Chris O’Hare, so if I mention numbers, it is just adding pressure on them that they don’t really need because they themselves don’t know how the race is going to unfold.”

But having friends in the field does give them a chance to settle and cope with other cartels.

“You need to have a number of people there and once they’re there, they can start to challenge,” admitted Harkins. “Look at the three men in the marathon or, potentially, the three women in the 5000m. I’m quite sure they’re going to help each other. There will be some good coming out of that.

“Every athlete wants to beat the others. But you’ve seen the Kenyans help each other in the past. If you found, for example, that the Africans were moving away, the three Scots could help each other in their pack. They’d all want to finish first from the three but they wouldn’t adversely affect the others’ performances. They’ll help each other so they all come out the best. In the 5000 or a marathon, it’s hard but that will benefit all of them.”

But the Rio adventure will be a step into the unknown for many, which will cause its own problems, according to Harkins, who formerly coached Lee McConnell through such glamorous events.

“For your first Olympics, you have to just experience what it is like because it is a cauldron and something that is completely different from anything you have ever experienced before. One example is Tessa Sanderson, who went to the Moscow Olympics and had three no throws and then four years later she was the Olympic javelin champion. The Olympics are so unique. You can try and prepare but it not like a Commonwealth Games or Europeans or even Worlds.”

But that is something for another day. “I don’t think they will think too far ahead. They’ll focus on this weekend and rightly so because if you take your eye off the ball and don’t finish in the top two, you leave yourself open to that third discretionary slot. And I don’t think any of them going into the weekend with the required qualifying standards will be thinking of getting their sun tan cream. It’s still about getting the job done, not taking it for granted.”