Ian McCafferty on athletics, fame and 1970

the 5000m metres race unfolds, with Stewart leading, Kip Keino second and McCafferty third. Picture: Contributed
the 5000m metres race unfolds, with Stewart leading, Kip Keino second and McCafferty third. Picture: Contributed
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THE man reckoned to be the great enigma of Scottish athletics isn’t about to give up his title easily, even though his 70th birthday is not far off.

“I’ll talk but you’ll have to find me first,” says Ian McCafferty. “Nobody knows where I live and even with SatNav you’ll get lost.” He’s dead right. The plotted route takes me past a spot called Wilderness and then dumps me deep in the middle of the South Lanarkshire countryside. “Go back to the plastics factory and I’ll come and fetch you,” he says when I phone for help.

Scottish runner Ian McCafferty borrowed  running shoes from Kenyan Kip Keino before the 1500 m race in the 1970 Commonwealth Games. Picture: Contributed

Scottish runner Ian McCafferty borrowed running shoes from Kenyan Kip Keino before the 1500 m race in the 1970 Commonwealth Games. Picture: Contributed

And here he is, walking across the road to meet me, still with the skinnymalink physique of a middle-distance runner, but grey-haired now and wearing glasses – and a neck support. “I need it on the days when my bad back bothers me and today is one of them.” He leads me to the cottage he shares with his wife, Liz, the location of which I must keep secret, and into the front room containing no evidence of a running career, far less his involvement in the greatest-ever Scottish race, although there are 22 china cats and six cat pillows. Four real moggies also live here along with seven dogs.

The race was the men’s 5000m final at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. If you weren’t fortunate enough to be at Meadowbank, you watched on TV with David Coleman commentating, or as he often did, Colemantating. “Those legs like pieces of black elastic stretching out!” he roared. This was Kip Keino, Kenya’s Olympic champion, and a serious threat to the guys in the dark blue vests, McCafferty and Ian Stewart. But then: “It’s a one-two all the way for Scotland! They’ve destroyed Keino, Ron Clarke and the rest of this world-class field!”

It’s a one-two all the way for Scotland. Oh to hear these words again. Oh to hear them in Glasgow this month (but not alas from the excitable mouth of the great Coleman, RIP). I must have seen the closing moments of that race a hundred times and cannot believe the YouTube clip has only been watched by one 187,000th of the audience for the video for Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. Every time the two Ians pass the last of the puddles and the rotund officials perched on too-small chairs, it still makes the spine tingle and even after all these years I still think McCafferty is going to catch Stewart.

Did I want him to? It would have made the race more thrilling. Also, McCafferty seemed in 1970 to these young eyes the more rock ‘n’ roll of the two. Stewart had a nice short haircut; McCafferty sported sideburns. You could make a comparison with the Sebastian Coe-Steve Ovett rivalry. Stewart and Coe would become part of the sporting establishment; McCafferty and Ovett seemed like the rebels, and in this our man hasn’t changed.

He’s burned his Olympics blazer from Munich 1972 and 20 scrapbooks went the same way. Other bawbees from his career have been dumped or donated. He keeps in touch with no one from Scotland’s golden era in middle-distance. When I ask about friendships from those days, the answer is an incredulous: “Friends ... how do you mean?” The invites to reunions have all but stopped. Lachie Stewart, who won the 10,000m gold in Edinburgh, told me last year he’d tried several times to get in touch with McCafferty and wondered what had become of him. I had to find out.

A tricky interview is expected but this one isn’t. There is no bitterness over all that promise – and he had a lot – not producing more rewards. “It wasn’t malice that made me burn those things. Athletics is in the past for me, has been for a long time, and I just wanted rid of them. I’ve been very happy and medals aren’t everything. There’s more to life. I’m lucky enough to have my health and my wife. These things are more important.”

Speak to veterans of the scene, scan McCafferty’s cuttings, and the same words keep cropping up: moody, difficult, even troublesome. He cheerfully answers each charge the same way: “Aye, suppose I was.” Would he say he was a loner? Yes he would. Another word which fits him as well as a Scotland singlet is thrawn.There’s no sentimentality about the man, and no self-regard either. The famous folk he met in his running days are reeled off and summed up thus: “I never bothered, people are just people.” Nevertheless it’s quite a list: Muhammad Ali, Henry Kissinger and Harold Wilson, the latter at Crystal Palace when Munich-bound Olympians were given envelopes stuffed with money towards the trip, such was the way amateur sport worked back then.

Then there were all the stellar types he encountered in the table-tennis rooms of Games Villages. “In Jamaica [1966 Commonwealth Games] I was playing and Prince Charles came up and tapped me on the shoulder. In Munich, it was Kirk Douglas and the Four Tops. I had a good chat with Kirk; he loved athletics.” Then he laughs. “Ask Liz about the time I met Elvis.” When she pops her head round the door to take orders for refreshments, I do. She sighs: “All I wanted to know was: did he get Elvis’ autograph? ‘No,’ he said, ‘you know me.’ Elvis even asked him if there was anything he wanted. This could have been a fantastic souvenir. Stupid-works here said: ‘No, you’re all right’ I’m a massive Elvis fan – I could have killed him!” This yarn from a race in Las Vegas, probably re-told a thousand times now, describes the solid home life that is so important to McCafferty, although he admits there has been some family unhappiness which must, like a few things, remain secret.

He’s never liked any fuss, declining to take part in the opening ceremony in Edinburgh, while agreeing that a blue blazer and well-pressed slacks would have been much easier to carry off than the Brigadoon zazzyness of the official Glasgow outfits. But if you’re looking for an incident which sums up McCaffety’s thrawness, this is the one: “I was getting close to the first sub-four-minute mile by a native Scot.

“STV sent a camera crew to the Cowal Highland Games but my time was just outside. I was speaking to Arthur Montford afterwards; he wanted to come to my next race. I said it was down in Reading and not to bother.” McCafferty may well have spurned Arthur the way he did Elvis: “No, you’re all right.” And what happened at the Reading Chronicle Gala Night of Sport? McCafferty went under four – “My greatest achievement,” he says in as modest a manner as possible, while Ian Stewart (second) and the latter’s brother Peter (third) also smashed the barrier. Shame the cameras weren’t there, I say. “Aye well ... “

McCafferty was “born in Law village, raised in Law village”. His parents were Sam and Meg. Bizarrely, but maybe not surprisingly, he doesn’t figure among the “notable people” on the South Lanarkshire spot’s Wiki page. There are three namechecks, all for footballers you may not know. In Law they had to work hard at coaxing the running out of him, after he refused to do it at school and in the Boy’s Brigade, but he eventually discovered he had ability. His father, a school janitor, and father-in-law John Peacock did the coaching and among the cuttings McCafferty has kept there’s one from the Sporting Life which makes the comparison with “working men in partnership training a greyhound in a backyard”. The piece mentions McCafferty’s sideburns on a face which is “a thinner version of Steve McQueen’s”. Sam says: “He’s no’ hard to handle, he’s quiet.”

The name McCafferty first appeared in the records in 1963 when Motherwell YMCA won the Midland District Youth Championships. Just a year later, he was world junior cross-country champion, winning in Dublin by 25 seconds, a margin only surpassed in 2001. He was a natural, even if he felt he didn’t fit in. “Before that race, the English boys didn’t want to know me. Afterwards they were all like: ‘Tell us your training routine.’ When I started going down to London to race I felt out of it. Jeffrey Archer would come up to me and say: ‘And what do you do?’ I’d go: “Me, I’m a plumber.’ And he’d say: ‘Oh. Well, I’m studying law.’”

Nevertheless, the titles and records and rave reviews kept coming.

One of his records was for the two miles and it was at this distance he’d get invited to run as part of the pre-match entertainment at Old Firm derbies for 20 quid in his pocket afterwards. “One time at Ibrox I was in the lead when this policeman crossed the track in front of me and I fell over.” He’ll have been disappointed not to win that race being a big Rangers fan but he got to become friends with some of the players. “I knew Willie Waddell quite well when he was a journalist on the Daily Express. One time he phoned me up and said: ‘This’ll be the last interview I do. On Monday I’ll be manager of Rangers.’” In recognition of his Commonwealth silver, Waddell invited him to do a lap of honour before a Gers friendly at Hamilton Accies. The self-conscious McCafferty found that “embarrassing”.

Our man may strike you as unusual, but his rivals seemed to have self-confidence, if not arrogance, to spare. In Munich, the American Steve Prefontaine, who was to die in a road crash three years after the Olympics, told the rest of the changing-room before the 5000m final: “Take a look at my back, guys – it’s all you’ll see of me today.” In the tunnel before the race, Finland’s Lasse Viren asked McCafferty: “So who’s going to be second?” Viren won with an incredible sprint finish.

Then there was David Bedford, the straggle-haired, strike-for-the-front Englishman who would later complain that 118 118 directory inquiries stole his image, a case he won. “He was real arrogant. In London he said to me: ‘I want to take you for a run, 12 miles, and I’m going to gub you. ‘Okay,’ I said. I didn’t know the streets but I kept a big tower as a marker and in the last couple of miles just ran away from him. When he eventually came in he said: ‘That was a pity – I got terrible cramp.’

“Then in Munich I was walking into the Village with [late, great journalist] Alex Cameron. Bedford was seven storeys up when he dropped a big orange which almost hit me. ‘Excuse me a wee minute, Alex,’ I said and went up to his room. It was locked but David Jenkins, his room-mate, let me in. I grabbed him and said: ‘Never pull a stunt like that again.’”

Another English runner to attempt to unnerve McCafferty was Dick Taylor. “I found out he’d said to David Coleman on TV that I had a big yellow streak down my back. At the start of a cross-country I challenged him about this and he claimed he’d only been joking. ‘Maybe we’ll sort this out after the race,’ I said. But I got injured during it and missed him.” Did McCafferty ever engage in psychological warfare of his own? “No, never, because I wasn’t afraid of anyone.” The interpretation here is that he had it done to him because others were fearful of his talent. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get on with officialdom either.

He obviously had friends in the press ranks, though, and you imagine the patriotic tabloids in particular must have loved his style and the drama and unpredictability which came with it. Although selected for the British team for the 1968 Olympics, he’d already made up his mind he wasn’t going to Mexico, fearing a repeat of the injury he’s suffered in the high altitude the previous year. Nevertheless the Daily Record sent a limo to his house for one last, doomed attempt to get him onto the plane.

Four years on in Munich’s 5000m he was a big medal hope but finished eighth. Just before the race there had been the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and a German police officer by Black September terrorists. McCafferty says: “I was playing cards with Kenny Lynch where I heard shots. Every night up until that point, waiting to phone home, I’d sat with an Israeli. I could use what happened as an excuse but I don’t.

“After seven laps I was comfortable, but then it was as if there was rope round my legs. I ran a bad race, that can happen to anyone, but it’s my biggest regret.” He virtually ran straight out of the stadium to catch a flight home. He knew his failure would be a story and so did the pilot who dropped him off at Prestwick while the plane was still taxing, to give him a head start on the waiting pressmen.

Finally, then, we return to 1970, to the Commonwealth Games and to Edinburgh. McCafferty had beaten Stewart previously in Reading (the sub-four-minute race), Grangemouth and Birmingham, the latter winning him a year’s supply of Complan. At Meadowbank he again felt good, right up until the final bend when the pair contrived that fantastic finish.

“Five more yards and I might have caught him. I went too late and perhaps instead of striking out with two laps to go I should have waited until the next one. But these are all ifs and maybes. I was disappointed but not envious of Ian. Although I didn’t really get on with him either, I respected him and he ran a great race that day.”

So did McCafferty and deep down he maybe acknowledged that when he allowed his daughter, Adele, to include his medal in a collage she made as a kid in tribute to her dad. The great enigma shows me it as I leave but says he won’t be attending the Games on their return to Scotland.

“The other day I was the guest starter of a local bogey race. That’s all the fame I need ... ”