She's covered sports from football and curling to shinty and snooker, now Scots broadcaster Alison Walker is about to go Olympic, discovers Jackie Hunter
• Alison Walker has been recruited by Olympic TV for this month's Winter Games where she will cover curling. Picture: TSPL
'I'M from Scotland - and I'm global!" Despite her status as one of our best-known sports broadcasters, Alison Walker cannot suppress her excitement over the assignment on which she's about to embark.
On a day when she ought to be at home packing her suitcase, the irrepressibly energetic Walker has buzzed into Edinburgh's New Town to discuss the honour of being the only Scottish reporter recruited by Olympic TV, the official channel providing worldwide coverage and commentary for this month's Winter Games in Vancouver, which begin on 12 February.
She'll be there chiefly to cover the curling, a sport about which she's surely more knowledgeable than the rest of the 75-strong Olympic TV reporting team, drawn from seven different nationalities. Which is vital, because in this huge logistical operation her brief is to hit the ground running. 'I'll be following all the international curling teams, because we commentate on everything for everybody and each of the 20 rights-holding countries takes what they want from it (for their own broadcasts]. I've been given this gig because of my knowledge, but I mustn't get too technical when I'm commentating, because some people will be watching curling for the first time and they may not know what a hog line is, for instance.
"Do you know what a hog line is?" she suddenly fires at me – and no, I don't. "Well, that's the sort of basic information I'll need to include, as well as trying to make it entertaining for a curling fan from, say, Afghanistan." Walker once tried her hand at curling, but found the technique hard to master. "My stone is probably still travelling to this day…"
Chatting amiably over a pot of gunpowder tea that's the colour of stagnant pond water – "I got a taste for it in Beijing" – Walker is clearly blessing the day last April when she quit her role as BBC Scotland's leading sports presenter to go freelance. This decision was not taken lightly: she had worked for the organisation for 21 years, learned her trade as a sports journalist, established a solid reputation and "earned my badges", as she proudly puts it, as a reporter and commentator.
It was covering the Beijing Olympics that gave Walker an inkling that, in her mid-forties, there were still professional challenges to be met and an even more diverse and exciting media career to be pursued. With the BBC she had experienced three career highs: interviewing Steve Redgrave after his fifth gold at Sydney; standing in Seville's Olympic stadium at the Celtic v Porto UEFA cup in 2003 and interviewing Chris Hoy in Beijing's velodrome. And yet …
"I wanted to stretch myself," says Walker, whose peroxide-blonde crop gives her a distinctive look that's both punky and chic. "I wanted to be my own boss. What's great about where I am now, at 47, is that I'm comfortable with myself and what I know. It's a lovely thing, feeling confident enough to branch out."
Still, even though the BBC is no longer the velvet coffin it was once perceived to be for its staff, surely leaving a salaried position was scary? "Cutting the reins, as a single parent with no regular income? I must have been insane!" she laughs. Walker is, of course, sane and incredibly sure of where she's going and why: her main motivator now, she says, is the desire to give her sports-mad sons, Lee, 18, and Oliver, 14, the best possible quality of life – even if that does mean leaving them for a month to go to Canada, "where they think I'll just be taking off to Whistler to ski as often as I can". Some hope – Olympic TV is a rolling news operation that requires ten-hour days of its reporters and some night shifts, too.
Walker grew up in a sports-obsessed family. Like her father and three brothers, she is a passionate fan of her hometown team, Hamilton Academical FC. Her dynamic mother encouraged experimentation with different sports – tennis, hockey, skiing, horse-riding – and subtly instilled the message that she could achieve any goal in life if she worked at it.
Walker's parents moved to Newcastle when she was 11 and from then on she seamlessly adopted the dialect. "I was raised a Geordie – whenever I go doon there me accent comes back!" After leaving Hookergate Comprehensive School she read media studies at Sunderland and then returned to Scotland, after a decade away, to take a post-graduate course at Napier and find a route into broadcasting.
"I had always wanted to be involved in media in some way," she reveals. "It all fascinated me. I got a bee in my bonnet about going to work for the BBC and becoming a Blue Peter presenter."
Half of that wish came true, and sticky-backed plastic's loss was football's gain when Walker joined BBC Radio Scotland in 1988, as a sports reporter and presenter, going on to produce Sportsound and also appearing in Sportscene and Reporting Scotland on TV.
Being a young woman in the macho world of football reporting was tough for more reasons than her youth and gender. In the Eighties, before the advent of mobile and internet technology, radio sports reporters were considered a threat by their newspaper counterparts, so there was existing hostility to contend with.
"I've done OK," Walker says modestly, "considering that when I started as a football reporter I was probably the only female doing that. It was hard going: I was the first one to regularly go out and do live reports, in the changing room and everything. I've seen some sights..."
She was routinely patronised, shouted at and told she wasn't good enough by men, but Walker developed a thick skin and a sound knowledge of various sports, which has enabled her to not only reach but remain at the top of her profession. Yet Walker is still an exception: why is it that, in an era when macho cricketers, boxers and rugby players are praised for appearing in dancing and cookery contests on TV, female voices beside the pitch and in the commentary box regularly attract prejudice? "I don't know what it is," Walker says. "I toughened up pretty quickly in the early days of my career, but I see why a lot of girls don't stay the course in football. I know the reactions they get. But what I don't understand is why, if it's what they really want to do, they're not prepared to work at it.
"One girl came in and followed me at work to get some experience and afterwards she said, 'I didn't realise you had to know so much'.
"I said, "Listen, if you want to be standing up there talking about football, you have to know twice as much as any of the men". She went off to do a week's course in TV presenting and she's working on the Shopping Channel now. Not many people have the staying power, and that applies to young men as well as women."
So what was different about Walker? "I was determined not to be beaten," she says simply. "Women on TV are always going to be scrutinised for their appearance. Why not turn it to your advantage, I say? I used to worry about it; now I think that if you're half-decent looking as well as having the knowledge, make the most of it. I've only ever wanted to be a good journalist."
That claim is borne out by her CV. Working across TV and radio in a diverse range of sports such as boxing, snooker, curling, basketball, athletics, bowls and shinty as well as football, is the key to her staying power.
No-one could accuse Walker of resting on her laurels, or her looks. As a freelancer she's already a regular contributor to Sky Sports news and BBC Five Live, and works with the Stirling-based media agency 110 Sport. After Vancouver, she's aiming to find a home for a new radio show offering the female viewpoint on current affairs and daily life in Scotland – sitting somewhere between Woman's Hour and Loose Women – which she's conceived with Liz Clark, a former presenter on Talk 107.
For now, though, it's Olympic curling and the fact that her commentary, interviews and analysis will be heard across the globe that's firing her up.
"And it's actually a bonus that our faces won't appear on camera," she says with glee, "because it means that for once I'll be able to wear a hat and keep warm, instead of standing there shivering in the cold!"