'A Russian soldier wasn't going to say, "Oh, Allan Wells isn't coming. I'm not going to shoot somebody"'
ALLAN WELLS remembers the build-up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics like it was yesterday. But then it's difficult to forget the few days that define your life, especially when they were enlivened by a stream of letters from the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and an injury so serious that Wells thought his dream of Olympic gold may be over.
It's easy to forget now, but back in 1980 politics were intruding on sport in a way that was spectacularly naked and almost without precedent. Incensed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ronald Reagan had required America's athletes to boycott the Moscow Games and 64 other nations did likewise. There was vast pressure applied on British athletes to voluntarily follow suit.
As one of the highest profile athletes, the thumbscrews were tightest on Wells. He received a succession of phone calls and letters from No.10 Downing Street, one of them enclosing a photo of a dead Afghan child clutching her doll in her lifeless hand. The emotional blackmail made the 28-year-old Edinburgh athlete's blood boil, but he remained resolutely logical. "What's going to happen if I don't go?" he asked himself. "A Russian soldier isn't going to say, 'Oh, Allan Wells isn't coming. I'm not going to shoot somebody'."
A more serious threat to his Olympic aspirations was a chronic back injury that arrived without warning in his sleep two and a half weeks before the Games. He woke one morning in excruciating pain, unable to move. It was the moment when he thought his Olympic dream was over. Instead, he had to undergo four exhausting treatment sessions each day, leaving him too drained to train.
They were, he believes now, twin distractions that helped him win gold in the 100m and silver in the 200m to become the first British gold medal sprinter since Harold Abrahams in 1924. From Berlin to the Black Panther protest to the Munich massacre, politics has long played a part in the Olympics, but Wells responded to the political pressure by totally refusing any media commitments. It meant he was able to focus entirely on his running. By the time of the 100m final he was so relaxed he spent the half hour before the race polishing off his latest paperback. As for the injury, he says being unable to train for almost three weeks forced him to relax, the most important component for success at the Olympics. "When we got to Moscow, (my wife and coach] Margot and I decided that I'd do six starts and see how it went. The fourth and fifth were full-out as if I was competing and I asked Margot what she thought: she said they were the best she'd ever seen me do. The rest had done me a lot of good, I was really fresh and committed, and those starts gave me the psychological edge over everyone else, which was key because the Olympics is all about your mental aptitude. You're at your fastest when you're relaxed and flowing (Wells' 10.11secs to qualify for the 100m final remains the Scottish record] rather than having to be aggressive."
The rest, from Margot's impassioned urgings in the 100m as he dipped to beat pre-race favourite, Cuban Silvio Leonard, to being pipped at the line by Italian Pietro Mennea in the 200m, is now history. But Wells still thinks that there are uncanny similarities between Moscow 1980 and Beijing 2008.
For a start, there's the political pressure that has seen 40 athletes sign a petition denouncing China's human rights record. Wells knows about the futility of the big gesture though (not least because the Americans' absence inevitably detracted from his achievement even though he destroyed their best sprinters, Mel Lattany and Stanley Floyd, two weeks after Moscow in Koblenz).
No, the Olympics should not be political, he says, but yes, athletes should be free to express their political opinions. "I think there should be a silent protest, where medal-winners who want to make their point wear a ribbon or something," he says. "I'm not suggesting a Black Panther-style protest but something that will make their feelings (on Tibet or China's human rights record] apparent."
And then there's the injury situation. Tyson Gay, America's best hope of maintaining its stranglehold on the Olympic gold medal, ran 9.74, the third fastest time ever, in Eugene just six weeks ago, but has since claimed to be injured and unable to train with the American team. Wells believes that the comparisons with his situation are wide of the mark, however. "Gay says he has a problem because he's coming back from an injury, but I'm pretty dubious about that to be honest, I think he probably just wanted peace and quiet to focus on his preparation," says Wells. "He's got one thing on his mind which is winning the 100 metres, which is what he's built for. He's put all of his eggs in this one basket but he's been sensible, he's done it his way."
Gay, along with Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell, is one of the three sprinting colossuses widely received as capable of winning the gold medal on Saturday. But he is not, believes Wells, the man who will emerge triumphant. Instead, says the Scot, it is Bolt who will push for a sprint double that would see him dominate these Games.
"I think that Bolt has the edge," says Wells of the huge young Jamaican 200m specialist who stunned the world when he became the fastest 100m runner of all time in May, running 9.72 in New York. "Bolt is the favourite for me in the 100, and he has a couple of yards in the 200, so it's difficult to see anyone stopping him. He's just got so much talent. I'd say he's the most naturally talented athlete we've seen since Michael Johnson."
Wells believes that this could be one of the all-time great 100 metre finals, even if he disagrees with American 200m legend Wallace Spearmon that all three men could run under 9.7secs in Beijing. "The thing about the Olympics – and it's the same now as it was in Moscow – is that you rarely get world records because it's very difficult to get to that sort of peak and still be relaxed enough to put in that sort of performance," he says. "But if the conditions are right – and the Chinese will have tried to put in a track that will give fast times – then the three of them could egg each other on and feed off each other. It's all about them staying relaxed."
Wells is big on the mental side of sprinting. Being right between the ears is the difference between success and failure, and he thinks that Bolt starts with a huge edge on his two rivals. "Powell is quick but he's got a weakness mentally because he maybe has too much respect for Bolt, and he has already been beaten by Gay. Once you've been beaten it's difficult to get that self-belief and confidence back. As for Gay, he knows that no man has ever run 100m faster than Bolt.
"With Bolt, he's such a big bloke at 6ft 5in that he'd put the frighteners on anybody. He's a bit cumbersome in some ways but he's very athletic once he gets going. If Powell or Gay are drawn with him early and beaten by him then it's tough to come back from that. What happens on the way to the final could be key because he needs to keep self-belief. This is a huge psychological game in the way that no other meeting is."
Wells is into his stride now, talking about the way that the Jamaicans have come through as a family-style team of incredible intensity, musing about the ways in which the surroundings in Beijing will affect the outcome. But as he talks of the leading trio, he says his mind constantly flits back to 1980, to Cameron Sharp, Don Quarrie, Haseley Crawford, Aleksandr Aksinin and Silvio Leonard. The essence of the sprint competition never alters, he says: the more things change, the more they stay the same.