Pounding round the track of Meadowbank Stadium to win the 10,000 metres gold medal at the Commonwealth Games of 1986, Liz Lynch ran into the hearts of the people of Scotland.
The stick-thin elfin lassie with prodigious talent, a dazzling smile, and happily broad Dundee tones became an instant national heroine – “Our Liz”, as she was duly dubbed.
As Liz McColgan, she faced the television cameras on Monday following her exit from Arbroath Sheriff Court. The pain of a marriage that is ending very messily and in the full glare of publicity after five children and 24 years was evident in McColgan’s wracked expression.
Found not guilty of assaulting her husband and ejecting his clothes from an upstairs window at the family home in Carnoustie in July, 47-year-old McColgan let rip in an emotional outburst. Never one for calling a spade a gardening implement, the Member of the Order of the Most Excellent Order of British Empire called things as she saw them.
“I have had a very tough life with Peter McColgan,” she said. “It has not been easy and nobody knows the true story. I am on the way to a new life now and totally free from someone who has tried to control everything that I’ve done.”
Peter McColgan sees things differently, of course, and, as his wife says, no-one really knows the true story. But the fact that he admitted that he had used computer spyware to try and discover if his wife was having an affair speaks volumes about their disintegrated relationship.
He alleged things turned to violence after he asked his solicitor to write and demand the sale of the sprawling family home in which they were both still living, despite having separated a year ago. Divorce is pending, though both presented a united front last week when their 12-year-old son Martin was hospitalised with problems related to his diabetes.
It is all so far removed from the McColgans’ idyllic start to their life together. They were the Golden Couple of athletics when they married in 1987, Peter being an international-class runner from Northern Ireland. His achievements, however, were always eclipsed by the lass brought up in Whitfield, one of Dundee’s less leafy environs.
Born one of a family of four in Dundee on 26 May, 1964, she attended St Saviour’s High School where her PE teacher suggested she join local athletics club Hawkhill Harriers. She tried sprinting, but soon became a distance runner, with her first coach Harry Bennett famously predicting she would one day win the 10,000 metres title.
It is often erroneously reported that McColgan was brought up in poverty, but though she lived in a council house, her father, Martin, was a publican and keen footballer – he managed one of Lochee’s local teams – and her mother, Elizabeth, always known as “Betty”, helped him run the bar. The couple supported all their children to the hilt, before Martin died in 2007 after a long fight against lung cancer and was buried on the day that his daughter received an honorary degree from Dundee University.
From teenage days, she dedicated herself to running and winning, and took jobs in a chip shop and a jute mill to support her athletics before her uncle paid for her to study at the University of Alabama. Returning to Scotland, McColgan’s determination to win was such that she would run hundreds of miles per week around Dundee.
With John “Gladiators” Anderson as her coach, and Peter as training partner, she won a silver medal at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, and a second Commonwealth Gold followed two years later in Auckland, New Zealand.
Nine months after that victory she gave birth to the couple’s first child Eilish, now 21 and a talented distance runner herself. Such was McColgan’s dedication that despite a painful labour lasting 48 hours, she was up and running just 11 days later. “I’d have done it sooner, but it hurt to walk,” she said.
Her most famous win was the 10,000 metres triumph in the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. Later that year, she won her first marathon in New York, and then lifted the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
Injuries blighted her later career, but she still achieved her ambition of winning the London Marathon in 1996 before finally hanging up her competition shoes in 2001 after one stress fracture too many.
By then she was comfortably wealthy, athletics going ‘open’ just in time for McColgan to cash in. Perhaps it was the sacrifices she made in her earlier career when she struggled for sponsorship that gave her the ability to drive a hard bargain with meeting and marathon promoters. At the quango Scottish Athletics, which she chaired for two years until 2005, she had a reputation for toughness.
Reputedly earning more than £250,000 per year, McColgan asked for and was given the highest level of appearance fees, as well as repeatedly winning top prizes in lucrative road races such as the Great North Run, which she won three times.
Working with her husband, she used the money to open her own health and fitness centre, with plans to open a chain of them that never quite came to fruition. According to reports, the McColgans have amassed some 41 properties over the years and their assets are valued in the millions.
Even at the height of her career, McColgan famously refused to employ a nanny, and her mum stays with her in a “granny flat” at the sprawling family home, Panbride House Lodge.
She would no doubt argue that all she has wanted for herself, her children, and for athletics in Scotland is the best she can possibly get. Whatever her travails, there will still be many Scots who recall “Our Liz” and wish her and her family all the best for the future.
Facts of Life
• Her mother recalled that at the age of 11, Liz Lynch lost a race to an older girl. It was her first loss. She did not take it well. Liz stormed home and said: “She’ll not beat me ever again.” And she didn’t.
• Two days before her 1991 World Championship 10,000m win in Tokyo, McColgan was asked during a news conference if she thought anyone could beat her. Her answer was brief: “No.”
• At the age of 39, McColgan decided on the spur of the moment to enter an East District cross-country race. A spectator shouted, “she’s past her sell-by date,” which was all the incentive McColgan needed to win by a full nine seconds.
• Her tenure as chairwoman of Scottish Athletics was not all sweetness and light, but McColgan was adamant that “amateurishness” was finished: “It’s hard when the set-up is so volunteer-based and steeped in the traditions of amateur sport. Success now demands a professional approach.”