IT HAS been portrayed in various quarters as a dress rehearsal. But, and notwithstanding the fact it is happening between the hours of 10am and 5pm today, the Sainsbury’s Glasgow International Match will feel more like an opening night than anything else.
The Emirates Arena event, which kick-starts a year of unprecedented exposure and opportunity for Scottish athletes, will feature as many as 30 of that group measuring their prowess against some of the best talent from the wider United Kingdom, the United States and other member nations of the Commonwealth. The Glasgow International is an annual staple but this year’s is different: last year there were eight Scots involved and the previous year Claire Gibson was a lone flag-bearer.
There are obvious reasons for this explosion, such as the magical Olympic Games that took place in London 18 months ago and the magnetic prospect of Hampden hosting a Commonwealth Games track-and-field programme this summer. But those factors should not distort the truth that Scottish athletics is no longer just a hardy perennial but a shrub showing signs of new bloom.
For bloom, read boom. The governing body has reported membership growth and cross-country participation figures that represent a 20-year high. You can’t walk ten yards in a built-up area these days without seeing a runner. And at the sharp end, a long journey from haphazard practice to the scientific production of talent is beginning to bear fruit. There were seven Scots in the British team for last summer’s World Championships, coming on the back of 14 medals being brought back north from the British Championships.
Scottishathletics chairman Ian Beattie welcomes all of this positive PR, as we sift through it in his office in Haymarket, but he plainly states that he will not be satisfied unless it can be converted into the major-championship medals and British records that will make the public realise that Scottish athletics is in a healthy state without anybody having to tell them.
“I think we are seeing two things, both of which are important. One of our objectives is to improve our performance at the top levels and to start seeing more of our athletes take part in high-level competition, and I think there have been positive signs,” says Beattie, a 47-year-old chartered accountant and chief operating officer at Lindsays law firm, who sponsor Eilish McColgan . “Last year we had seven athletes in the GB team for the World Championships, all of whom performed well, and that was the highest representation for a while. We had six gold medallists at the UK Championships, again the best for as long as I can remember.
“These are all signs of hopefully an improved focus on performance. But we need to see that continue, and this is the big year with the Commonwealth Games. One of the things we’ve said all along is that we want to see our top athletes perform when it matters. When it matters is at Hampden this summer.
“The other aspect of the growth is what we are seeing in our clubs, and the increased participation, and that’s not just down to us. It’s down to the fact we’ve had an Olympic bounce, we’ve got a Commonwealth Games, but it’s also down to the fact we’ve had an increased focus on clubs. We’ve got the NVT Club Together programme, which is really getting a lot of plaudits across many sports as a successful club development initiative. But my view is that we’ve got to do both well. I don’t think it necessarily follows that if you’ve got good clubs, you get athletes doing well at the top. You need investment, you need the correct coaches, coach training, sport science… everything in the package. And ambition. So yes, it’s great to see good things happening at grass roots but our role at Scottishathletics is to develop the pathway.”
Beattie, from Kilbarchan in Renfrewshire, has little or no memory of the 1986 Commonwealth Games, even though they took place in Edinburgh. The sting is drawn out of the revelation when he talks of watching Allan Wells, Cameron Sharp and Co winning relay medals in Edmonton eight years earlier. But it is interesting, nonetheless, that Meadowbank passed him by. Aged 20, he was busy starting a life of employment and hadn’t even begun a running career that would take him around the world in 80 races (he has actually completed 93 marathons). But the fact that a Scot, one with an interest in sport who was an adult at the time, was barely aware that something was happening in 1986 demonstrates the exponential growth of the Games in the last couple of decades.
Today at the Emirates Arena, an invisible curtain will be raised. The decision to award Lynsey Sharp with her European gold medal in front of a sold-out Glasgow venue is a masterstroke, because she will never have experienced anything like this level of attention and it is something the usually low-profile Scots need to get used to if they are not to suffer stage fright in the summer.
There are definite signs of numerous athletes being on an upward trajectory as Glasgow 2014 approaches. There is a sense of inevitability that Scottish athletes as a group will over-perform in front of a home crowd. However, there is also a nagging feeling that if the Games were still another four years away, the good work that Beattie, who took over from Frank Dick less than two years ago, chief executive Nigel Holl and others have done during the 2010-2014 cycle might have produced a team capable of multiple gold medals, like their swimming compatriots.
“I think the Commonwealth Games has become massive, probably since Manchester in 2002,” says Beattie, who has been a member of five clubs: Troon Tortoises, Central, Strathearn Harriers, Harmony and now Portobello, and served on the board of sportscotland. “I think Scottish people love sport and really appreciate sport, and that’s one of the things we can harness.
“In the last two Games we have had two medals in each. We would hope that we can do better than that, but I wouldn’t sit here and say ‘this is success’. We saw the impact it had in London when Mo Farah delivered in front of a home crowd, and Jess Ennis and Greg Rutherford on Super Saturday. We just hope that our athletes are able to deliver and perform. It’s a home Games, there has been significant investment and I hope there is a lot we can achieve.”