HE HAS greyed significantly since you last saw him, but, if anything, Euan Burton looks younger than he did on 31 July 2012, the day his worst nightmare enveloped him. He is over it.
A very high proportion of modern Olympic dreams end in tears. It is hard to pinpoint when the exception became the rule but it seems reasonable to blame reality TV, that pseudo-parallel universe where it is mandatory to cry about whatever it is you are trying to achieve, succeed or fail.
The London Olympic Games of 2012 made everybody cry. From 15-stone cyclists to 7-stone gymnasts, from the mothers and brothers of the sobbing athletes to the professionals interviewing them on live television, they cried when they won and they cried when they lost, cried in pain when it hurt and cried in relief when it was over.
Perhaps the Olympics were always like this and our view is skewed because this was our home Games, and subject to greater and more partisan media coverage than any other. There is another home Games coming up this year, of the Commonwealth variety, an event that may lack the elite sporting kudos of the Olympics but one that will still trouble the tear ducts of athletes who consider it their once-in-a-lifetime shot at national acclaim.
Euan Burton swears he will not shed tears in Glasgow, and we believe him. But the reasons behind his determination not to are worth examining. He states emphatically that he will retire from competitive judo in the last week of July with no regrets, no matter whether his valedictory outing succeeds or fails. He says he is more of a coach than an athlete now, so personal success matters less to him. This language screams of a man who has learned to put defeat into perspective but an experienced sports psychologist would probably tell us there is also an element of self-preservation at work.
Burton would be less famous had he not competed in London, he would be less famous had he not been eliminated about 100 seconds into his quest, and he would be less famous had he not given an interview afterwards in which he tugged at his jaw and jammed his eyes closed and blew into his hands to stop himself from breaking down as he verbally annihilated himself for letting his family and friends down.
“I’ve been working for this for over a quarter of a century, and I’m pretty sure you won’t see me in Rio so, no, there are no positives to be taken,” he said, leaving his interviewer stumped. A dream was unravelling live on camera, and a nation found itself hooked. Reality TV gold.
Burton understands the perverse nature of his fame. He laughs about it and refuses to be soured by what was a mind-boggling experience. Judoka do their judo in anonymous privacy for four years, working towards the day when the whole country will watch them do it. They are then asked to address the biggest audience they will ever address at what could be the weakest point of their adult lives, the gut-wrenching moment when it feels as if years of sacrifice have been in vain. But then, there is a happy flipside to that eventuality.
It all went terribly wrong in London for Burton, but it all went right for Gemma Gibbons two days later. She won and won and won again and then beat the world champion, and, when she knew she had won a medal, cried big tears on the mat, stood up and mouthed the words “Thanks Mum” skyward. Gibbons had come through tragedy, the loss of her mother at 16, to fulfil her dream, and once again a nation was hooked. Reality TV gold.
It would wrong to assume that the past 21 months have been plain sailing for Gibbons, and more on that later. Equally, the man she married has not become a bitter recluse, bellowing at the Fates every day for not being fairer to him in the summer of 2012. Every joule of energy he once expended as an athlete he is now putting into coaching, a trade-off that might end up bringing him more satisfaction than his own judo did. He will compete in Glasgow and he will do so with a good chance of winning. But there won’t be any sense of payback or unfinished business about his motivation, and he won’t be trying to prove a point. Burton really has turned his outlook on its head since that day of doom.
“I said quite quickly afterwards: ‘I hope I’m not remembered for the rest of my days as the person who gave that interview,’” he recalls, taking a break from performance reviews at Judo Scotland HQ in Ratho. “I hope I’m remembered for some of the results I got. But I understand that, for the vast majority of the British public, they’ll never know about the results that I’ve had, they’ll never have known about the championship medals I’ve won or the times I’ve stood on the top of an international podium.
“I think if you can’t deal with that, and you’re in a sport that’s less well known, then you’re always going to end up coming out of the sport as somebody who is bitter and thinks they should have got more or expected more. And, actually, I love judo and I think it’s the best sport in the world and I think everybody should do it, but I also understand that everybody doesn’t do it and not everybody knows about it.”
This is not the only area where Burton has brought balance to his state of mind. Spending more time helping others achieve what he set out to achieve 20 years ago has helped him to relax about his own judo, while still satisfying that burning urge to beat the opposition.
“I spent a huge part of my career as an athlete being pretty selfish, in that I would do absolutely anything to put myself in the position to be the best athlete I could be. And I enjoyed that because it meant that I had no excuses,” he says.
“When I walked off the mat in London, I had to admit I’d done everything I possibly could to prepare myself. I was the best athlete I could be going into London, and I still ended up losing the first fight. That’s quite a difficult thing to deal with, but that’s how I want to conduct myself as an athlete and, in the last couple of years since the Games, I’ve been able to say ‘OK, I’m going to deal with my coaching life in the same way as I used to deal with my athlete’s life. I’m going to do everything I possibly can to be the best coach I can’. By doing that, I can’t be the best athlete I can be. But I’ve quite enjoyed that change.
“I’ve had 15 years competing at the top level for Britain and putting absolutely everything into it, and I’ve got some amazing results. But now it’s a good now to say I’m focusing on something else. I can still potentially go to Glasgow and win, but it takes a wee bit of pressure off.”
Pressure on or off, Burton is still not making it easy for himself. Last month he was knocked unconscious for the first time in his career, when beaten in the final of the Pan-American Cup by Brazilian Hugo Pessanha. If you were already wondering why he is still throwing his weight around and being thrown around at the age of 35, consider this: he has stopped competing at 81kg and chosen to forgo the option of fighting at 91kg in favour of 100kg.
This is not, he hastens to tell us, the reason he was knocked out cold in Argentina – it was just a super piece of judo, not dissimilar to the one by Canada’s Antoine Valois-Fortier that thwarted him in London. There are two reasons, one selfish and one selfless, for him choosing to spend his swansong fighting dramatically heavier foes.
“These guys are monsters and I’m giving away 10 kilos to them. If they beat me, well, I’ve been beaten by a big, huge monster,” he says. “I sit about 91 kilos and most of the 100-kilo guys will be about 103 or 104 kilos by the time they fight. For my whole career at 81 kilos I would sit at 85 or 86, drop the weight to make the weight category, which used to be 7am on the morning of the day of the tournament, and then rehydrate to put some weight on before fighting.
“It was a natural progression for me to say goodbye to 81 after London. If you’re only focusing on yourself you can cut the weight, but if you’re trying to take care of another 20 athletes and you’re dieting, your moods are all over the place and you’re a little bit pissed off all the time because you’re not eating what you would like to be eating, it’s not fair on them.
“The next weight category above is 90, which is probably the best category for my natural weight, but we’ve got four really good guys at 90 in Scotland. I feel I could’ve got a space at 90 for the Commonwealth Games, but I’m also a coach of the team and I wouldn’t have felt particularly comfortable trying to go at 90s and definitely taking a place off one of the guys I’m coaching. At 100 we’ve only got James Austin, and there is a strong possibility that we could both get selected.”
When it comes to the Commonwealth Games, Burton appears to have it all worked out. The only thing he did not see coming was Gibbons sustaining a shoulder injury that required six months of rehab and then a nasty ankle injury. The 27-year-old should be fit by the end of July but the chances of her racking up enough qualifying points to gain selection for England are slim. Her main job, then, will be to support her other half, try to bring a sense of normality to proceedings when hysteria abounds, which will be a neat role reversal.
When Paul Gascoigne cried live on TV at Italia 90, a dam seemed to break. Any number of sportspeople have done it since then and it no longer shocks, but viewers, being human, still become emotionally involved with what they are watching. They buy into the athlete’s back story and all they have invested in this moment and imagine what they must be thinking, marvel at how they keep a lid on their emotions until it is over and then, when it is over, let it all come spilling out.
Burton and Gibbons are as famous for their emotions as for their athletic prowess, and they have mixed feelings about this. In some ways, the X Factor and the Olympics are not so very different. It is surprising to find that Gibbons has found it harder than Burton to deal with the strange type of celebrity that encased them both two years ago.
“I would be completely happy with no-one knowing who myself or Gemma are,” says Burton. “For Gemma, of all the opportunities that have opened up for her since London, she’s quite aware that some of them have opened up because she won the silver medal and she was the first person in 12 years in British judo to win a medal at an Olympic Games, and she came through and fought against the world champion with a broken thumb and smashed her for ippon in the semi-final. But she also understands that a lot of the reason she is well-known is for what happened immediately after that, and that wasn’t something she had thought about doing, or something she even really knew she had done, and it certainly wasn’t something she knew everyone in the country had seen.
“That is what has made her well known to people, and that has been quite a difficult thing for her to deal with, because her mum did die when she was 16, her mum isn’t with her any more, and it is something that has affected her in her life but she has not let it hold her back. Up until that point, we had barely talked about it. She’s not always the most happy that that’s the first thing that’s mentioned whenever anyone talks to her.
“I think part of her motivation to go one better in Rio is because she’s a winner, but another part of it is to say to people: ‘I’m much more than that. That was something that was very close to my heart, and I didn’t realise it would be seen by so many people, and I didn’t realise what would happen off the back of it, but I’m also a fantastic judo player and I’m also someone who is a winner.’”
The word “winner” is one of the toughest to define in the sporting lexicon. Burton has a collection of five major medals, two from the World Championships and three from the Europeans – but all of them are bronze. He didn’t achieve his goal of Olympic gold. How, then, will he convince himself to walk away from the sport this summer happy with his lot?
“From the age of 18, and probably before that, all the way through to London, I gave everything to this. There was no stone unturned, there were sacrifices made, I gave up friendships, relationships, sacrificed things like that for my sport to try and achieve the pinnacle of what you can achieve in my sport, which is to be Olympic champion. And I got two opportunities to do that and I didn’t manage to take either of them.
“I’m disappointed that I didn’t manage to take either of them, but I am also very proud of what I have achieved in my career because as a 15 or 16-year-old boy, if people had said ‘who’s going to be the best judo player in the next generation for Scotland?’, no-one would have said Euan Burton.
“I didn’t achieve the things I wanted to achieve in Olympic terms, but I achieved a great deal more than I probably thought I could in terms of everything else. I’ve got absolutely no regrets about what I’ve done in my career. Regardless of what happens in Glasgow I’ve got no regrets.”
With that came irrefutable confirmation that Burton is over London. There might be an element of self-preservation about the removal of his win-at-all-costs mentality but there is a blissful calm about him now, and, if he wins in Glasgow, he won’t be the first athlete to find success comes at the least expected time. There won’t be many more popular Scottish gold medallists, because when we watch somebody endure pain, we are trained to then expect a happy ending. Euan Burton standing on top of the podium in Glasgow would be reality TV gold.