TWO years ago Euan Burton thought his international judo career had ended in tearful defeat when he lost his first fight at the London Olympics.
Today, he is not only preparing to represent Scotland on Saturday, he is getting ready to carry out the highest ceremonial role a team member can have at the Commonwealth Games by being the flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.
Burton began the transition from player to coach after the Olympics, and the latter role is still very important to him – for a start, he is coach to one of his team-mates, James Millar, so cannot simply shrug off that side of his judo life. But as flag-bearer he has now been given a far more prominent role than any coach would have – a role that extends well beyond his own sport.
Leadership comes naturally to the 35-year-old, so his answer came as no surprise yesterday when asked if he regretted coming out of retirement. “Certainly not,” he said at a press conference to announce his selection as flag-bearer by his fellow-athletes.
“There’s a little bit more work during these Games than I was anticipating, but I’m glad I came out of retirement. It’s a huge honour.
“When you look at the people who have previously been flag-bearers for Scotland, it’s just a phenomenal experience, and to do it at home – I’m sure the crowds are going to be going mental.
“It’s something that’s very difficult to put into words, but it’s a fantastic feeling.
“I’ve had to keep it quiet for just over a week. One or two of my very closest family have found out, but I’ve had to keep it quiet, which is difficult – it’s something that you’re very proud of.
“But I also understand that the announcement is a big occasion, and I think doing that helps with the excitement and makes everybody realise that the Games are about to begin.
“One of our S&C [strength and conditioning] coaches was a bit perplexed when I asked him if I could take a certain piece of equipment home from the gym. It was a long heavy pole and he was wondering why. He’ll find out this afternoon. I’ve done a little bit of practice.”
It is an indication of Burton’s standing within Scottish sport that he was selected despite judo having been absent from the Commonwealth Games since they were held in Manchester 12 years ago. And it is an indication of his humility that, when asked why he had been chosen by his peers, he emphasised the values of judo as a sport rather than talking about his own virtues.
“I’d like to think that people respect what we do as a sport,” he said. “When I think of judo I think of a lot of the values that I align with being Scottish – things like honour and courage that are big parts of our sport – and I hope the rest of the team think of judo in that way as well and associate the type of values and the type of qualities that you need to be a judo player with the type of values that we hold dear as Scots.”
Although he has spoken with a Scottish accent for as long as anyone has known him, Burton was born south of the Border, in Berkshire.
Five of his team-mates also first saw the light of day in England, which, together with the fact that, in the vast majority of competitions, judo players fight for Great Britain, means that the Scottish and English squads know each other well. Very well, in the case of Burton and his wife, Olympic silver medallist Gemma Gibbons, who is now greatly looking forward to attending tomorrow night’s ceremony.
“There was a little bit of talk among her team that none of the English athletes would walk at the opening ceremony, but when she found out that I might be in line to be flag-bearer she was adamant that she wanted to be out there,” Burton explained. “So she was doubly pleased, one for myself and also secondly that she’s going to have something to watch while the English team are standing in the centre of Celtic Park.
“I hope I swell the Scottish numbers at the opening ceremony, but people know that the dynamic for me at the Games is pretty interesting.
“I’ve come out of retirement, I’m helping to coach the team and I have a wife who’s going to be fighting for another team on the same day as me, so it all makes for a good story and, hopefully, we can both put medals on the mantelpiece at the end of it.
“We’re both judo athletes, so we talk about judo a fair bit at our training centre, but we do talk about other things as well. All of our conversations haven’t been around the Commonwealth Games or the Scotland-England potential rivalry.
“She’s my wife and I want her to be successful. I’m her husband and she wants me to be successful.
“Although we’re not used to fighting for opposite teams, we’re very used to fighting on the same day – we’ve done it a lot of times for GB. And when you’re competing on the same day as someone else, you’re not husband and wife: you’re there as a judo player and you’re there to try and stand on top of the rostrum.
“That’s what she’ll be doing and that’s what I’ll be doing. I’m sure we can celebrate afterwards, but, during the day, I’ll be fully supporting the Scottish team, making sure everybody is able to do their job, and trying to do the business myself.”
Both Burton and Gibbons are competing on Saturday, the third and final day of the judo competition. And after that, retirement will definitely beckon for the Scot: of that he is totally sure.
“One hundred per cent,” he said. “I’m absolutely convinced.”