GOLD is the pinnacle of any athlete’s achievement at the Commonwealth Games, but sometimes a lesser medal can be just as significant in the longer term.
That was certainly the case in 1970, when the Games came to Scotland for the first time, for a young swimmer called David Wilkie.
Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka – coincidentally, the city where Glasgow won the vote to host next year’s Games – Wilkie was just 16 when the athletes of the Commonwealth descended on Edinburgh. By his own admission he was less than enthusiastic about swimming, having only taken it up because he was no good at football or rugby, so was astonished when he won a bronze medal in the 200-metres breaststroke.
“I was a total amateur in those days,” he recalled decades later. “I hardly trained. I didn’t know what to expect – I really didn’t know what swimming was all about, competing at that level.
“And I was really totally unprepared and unready. And therefore to get a bronze was quite a freak in many respects, in my eyes and in my coach’s eyes.”
Wilkie had in fact broken the British record for the same event just weeks beforehand, so knew he was in reasonable form. But that was an international against Denmark: in the Commonwealth Games he was up against the might of the Australians and Canadians, who between them, won every event bar two in the entire men’s and women’s swimming programme.
True to form, William Mahony of Canada won the 200m, adding to his 100m title, and Paul Jarvie of Australia won silver, less than half a second behind. Those two were some way clear of the field, but Wilkie finished best of the rest, more than two seconds behind Jarvie, to claim a medal which he believes he owed to the Scottish crowd.
“The home support made a hell of a difference, because I was a lazy little devil. I hated training. I couldn’t be bothered. The Commonwealth Games set me off on the right path.”
It was a path that led to medal after medal, at Commonwealth and Olympic Games and at world championships. By the time of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the Scot was ranked 25th in the world at the 200m breaststroke. He won silver, setting a European record in the process.
Wilkie set a world record the following year at the world championships, and when the Commonwealth Games came around again, in 1974 when Christchurch was the host city, he won two golds and a silver. The crowning glory of his career was winning Olympic gold in the 1976 Games, but to this day he is sure that it all began with that “freak” bronze he somehow attained in Edinburgh.