Interview: Allan Wells’ memories of career forged at Meadowbank

Allan Wells on a visit to Meadowbank to unveil a plaque. Picture: Esme Allen
Allan Wells on a visit to Meadowbank to unveil a plaque. Picture: Esme Allen
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One of the great mysteries of Allan Wells’ Olympic triumph concerns the book he was reading just before the big race. Was it an account of the Nuremberg Trials and how the Nazis were brought to justice for their crimes against humanity, or perhaps the autobiography of a go-to pathologist looking back over a slew of grisly killings?

In Moscow in 1980 Wells’ wife and coach Margot left this question hanging as he caught his breath between the semi-finals and final of the 100 metres. “Actually,” says the sprint king today, “it was Murders of the Black Museum. The 50 most notorious cases investigated by Scotland Yard. The Ripper, Christie, the Krays – they were all in there.”

That’s all right, then. For a moment – well, for 37 years – I thought it was going to be something really horrible. “I needed serious distracting,” Wells continues. “I needed to be taken as far away as possible from the race and, as strange as it may sound, I ended up contemplating guns and knives and what goes through the head of an 
executioner.”

What is not a mystery, though, is that there would have been no Moscow for Wells without Meadowbank. No lunge for the tape with that pneumatic Popeye chest. No lap of honour, arms outstretched like Atlas as if he was holding a globe above his head. No discovery of how, at the crack of the starting-pistol, Margot ditched calm science for primal screaming (“C’mon Allan! C’MON ALLAN!”). And no open-top bus parade back home in Edinburgh.

After tomorrow, though, there will be no Meadowbank. The athletics stadium is closing its doors and a big chunk of Scotland’s sporting narrative will be consigned to history when the wrecker’s ball delivers the most decisive shot-putt ever seen in EH7.

This is where Wells was inspired; where he trained; where he journeyed four times a week on a No 49 bus until he acquired a moped. And this is where the victory procession ended for the first Scot to win gold on the track – and the first Brit to be able to call himself the fastest man alive – for more than half a century. “You wouldn’t be interested in talking to me today if it wasn’t for Meadowbank,” says Wells, now 65.

Over the next hour he will describe the place as “a godsend”, “like Christmas had come” and “glorious”. Wells’ own story, from housing-scheme kid to podium star, was glorious but there have been jarring chapters recently
with accusations that he used performance-enhancing drugs. He continues to vehemently deny the charges but Meadowbank, for the next few hours and days at least, stands proud as his centre of excellence, as it was for others of his generation and beyond.

Wells is in Guildford, Surrey, which has been his home since 1982, so his daughter Zoe and son Simon are inured to him shouting passionately for Scotland during football and rugby internationals and just as keenly for whoever England are playing. “This used to cause them consternation. I tried to explain the historical, long-winded rivalry but they get that their dad’s competitive.” This is his most-used word in our chat (after Meadowbank, anyway). An engineer to trade, he lectures at the University of Surrey where “the post-grads can just about put up with my swearing.” Grandfather to Zoe’s daughter Olive, he runs along a canal most days with her pug Dexter and likes his golf, having just achieved his first hole-in-one.

“I’m pleased to say it was back in Edinburgh, the 11th at Craigmillar Park. I was with three pals from 
Fernieside Primary, Robert, David and Alex, and another lad Tommy who was the year below but lived in my street. It was a good day talking about old times, watching the Hearts and remembering Willie Wallace playing a last great game against Celtic before moving 
to them.”

Would these chums say he was competitive, even at Fernieside? “I think they’d tell you that right after sports day I’d have the most winner’s ribbons – red, I think. Every morning before the bell we played football behind the school, which meant a run round the building to get into line. I used to let everyone go ahead then try to take them on the corner. That was just as thrilling as anything I ever achieved on the bend of the 200 metres.”

Meadowbank opened on 3 May, 1970 – Wells’ 18th birthday. The blacksmith’s son was getting himself a good career at Brown Brothers in Leith. “We specialised in hydraulics, stabilisers for ships and compensators for North Sea oil rigs.” He recalls an unusual order: “This big guy from Greece wanted his yacht painted gold.” His bosses passed on the job but, two months later, the reddish-yellow hue became a routine sight. Signing up at Meadowbank as a volunteer for Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Games changed Wells’ life.

“I was given duties like putting out the hurdles. It’s a myth that I raked the long jump pit. But I got to see the Games for free with ‘Steward’ on my tracksuit – I couldn’t have afforded the tickets otherwise – and being up close to the 
athletes and seeing them warm up and checking their times actually made me feel like a competitor.

“I saw the 5,000m, gold for [Ian] Stewart and silver for [Ian] McCafferty. I saw Lachie [Stewart] win the 10,000m and Marilyn Neufville set the Games’ only world record [400m]. But the guy who maybe made the biggest impression on me was [Welsh long jumper] Lynn Davies. I thought he portrayed what an athlete should look like. He was a great cover star for the sport.”

Long jump was Wells’ first discipline, but he always loved sprinting. His home in Fernieside Crescent was next to the HQ of Edinburgh Southern Harriers. “On my way to school and the shops I saw the track every day. That was hugely significant. There was a wire fence separating it from our path and I remember when I was maybe seven or eight getting into trouble for running alongside the club members. One of them, Dave Combe, gave me a right blast. ‘You’re putting me off,’ he said. Funnily enough I ended up 
racing against him later.

“I loved having that track on my doorstep and I suppose it was quite quirky. It measured 354 and a half yards, something like that. And the long jump was an optical illusion. Because the field was on a slope you thought you were running uphill.”

There were no such kinks at Meadowbank. “To have an all-weather track was kind of space-age. Every other track at that time was cinder. The only one to compare was Crystal Palace, but Meadowbank was superior for being a proper complex with its big hall and all the other facilities. I felt very proud of my city for having staged such a great Games and for the local people to then be able to enjoy Meadowbank – 
everyone did.”

On that trip back north recently, Wells had one last look round. “It was lovely walking across the orange floors again, looking at the spike marks and wondering if any were mine. It was quiet when I was there, but then I remembered how even when the place was really busy you could walk from the cafeteria, along one of the corridors and down the stairs and there would be no one around. It was an eerie feeling but you could just sit down and meditate.

“I bumped into a young shooter, with her dad who might have been her coach, and tagged along with them. We walked the length of the stand to a long room, well rigged out, where she was training for next year’s Commonwealth Games. Right to the end of its life, then, Meadowbank has been helping sportsmen and women towards their goals and dreams. I got a sense from the girl of the commitment we all showed when the place opened.

“I remember that right after the Games finished there was a directive from the Edinburgh council’s recreation department that Meadowbank was to be used by the city – by schoolkids with all their different sporting interests, by everyone. We heeded that. It was a tremendous facility and we thought we should make the best of it.”

For the would-be sprint champion the “tartan track” was a boon. “It was the difference between travelling in a old Mini and a pristine Rolls-Royce.” But Wells also waxes nostalgic about twin treats found in the cafeteria: “The chips were sensational and I remember the slush puppie machine and one wee guy’s reaction: ‘That stuff’s just killed ma brain!’

“Meadowbank was very motivating. The people there were good people. The place provided for the top echelons and also the badminton players, the boxers, the judo guys, the archers. Being there always made me feel good, that I wanted to do well.

“At first, though, I had no idea what I was doing. After 60 metres of a sprint my arms and legs would be all over the place.” He joined a training group featuring David Jenkins and his brother Roger. Others helped in the creation of an Olympian. And then along came Margot.

“We met on the bus back from an athletics meeting in Perth. Everyone was going for a meal and Margot and 
[discus thrower] Meg Ritchie asked me to come along but I was feeling sorry for myself as I’d fallen over in my race and just went home. A few months later, though, I was at a Southern Harriers disco at Boroughmuir Rugby Club. I was about to call it a night and walk back over the Braids. That wasn’t one of my better ideas so I went back to the disco and asked Margot out. I had to buy her a Moscow mule, which cost me a wee fortune.”

At the Friendly Games in 1970, Wells remembers Don Quarrie gazing up at Meadowbank’s state-of-the-art scoreboard on his way to becoming double sprint champ. Eight years later at the Commonwealths in Edmonton, the Fernieside flyer ended the Jamaican legend’s reign. Wells also shared in a relay triumph for Scotland, the team including Drew McMaster. No Christmas cards were exchanged between these fierce rivals for individual honours. Indeed no batons could be passed between them in Canada, and the foursome had to be set up so they avoided each other.

The rivalry has since grown nastier. The allegations in a 2015 Panorama documentary that Wells used drugs came mainly from McMaster, who had lied about his own drug-taking for many years. Wells’ former coach Bill Walker was among those who leapt to his defence, accusing McMaster of “jealousy”. Wells called the claims “malicious” and at the time was considering legal action. “This isn’t over,” he says today, “but my conscience is clear. It [the BBC programme] was muck-raking at its worst and McMaster is a bitter loser. Why would I risk everything I set out to achieve by using illegal substances?”

Let’s get back to Meadowbank. The impression given by a film following Wells’ Olympic journey is that it rained during every Margot-supervised training session. What top sprinter ever emerged from under such leaden skies, with even Arthur’s Seat obliterated by the bleakness? He laughs at the memory. “I used to do quarry high knees with a weighted jacket, belt and ankle straps and the water which gathered in my tracksuit just made them tougher. Meadowbank was always cold and, when I went back the other day, it didn’t let me down. The woman at reception needed a heater under her desk.”

By the end of the 1970s, word had spread about the speedster from decidedly unbalmy Auld Reekie. “One day a call came through to Meadowbank: Pietro Mennea wanted to race me. That was just before Edmonton and I couldn’t do it. But, without wanting to sound big-headed, I would have beaten him. He was the better 200m runner but I think I was the better competitor.” In 
Moscow at the start of the new decade the Italian did indeed force Wells to accept silver in the longer sprint but Wells wouldn’t be denied glory in the 100m – although Margaret Thatcher tried.

The Games were marred by a boycott led by the United States in protest at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and 65 countries stayed away. Thatcher’s government tried to pressure Wells and other British athletes not to take part. “Half-a-dozen letters from 10 Downing Street were sent to the house. The first one had a picture of a dead Afghan girl with a doll. I didn’t bother opening the rest. It didn’t seem likely that if I’d boycotted the Olympics a Russian soldier would say: ‘Oh Allan Wells isn’t coming anymore. I’m not going to shoot anyone’.”

To those who said Wells’ gold was devalued by the no-show of his biggest challengers Mel Lattany and Stanley Floyd, he offered the perfect riposte a fortnight after the Games by beating the Americans in Koblenz, West Germany. “I didn’t know anyone more competitive than me back then,” he reiterates. “That’s what guys like McMaster couldn’t understand. All athletes by their nature are selfish people. There were many like me. But Margot used to say I was the most selfish one she’d ever met and I took that as a compliment!”

So could history ever repeat? Could another square-jawed hero be hewn from the craggy rocks above Meadowbank when the replacement stadium comes along? Wells hopes so although is worried it won’t be on the same scale. “Maybe 47 years ago we would have bitten off hands for a complex of the size being proposed. But we got Meadowbank and that was fantastic.

“My concern for Edinburgh is that big athletics meetings will go to Scotstoun in Glasgow. My concern for Scotland is that the country no longer has a stadium of the stature of Meadowbank which is known worldwide. The old place has outlived its usefulness but if we’re going to replace, it should be with something better. I know there have been hardships in Edinburgh over the last few years because of the trams but that’s not the public’s fault and it’s not the athletes’ fault.”

Wells summons up one final memory of Meadowbank and it’s from his Moscow homecoming: “When the plane got to Edinburgh there must have been 5,000 people at the airport. As the open-top bus headed into the city the traffic on the other side of the road had stopped and I assumed there had been a crash – but then I noticed everyone was standing on their cars and waving. The crowds were huge on Princes Street, even though it was another dreich day. Edinburgh folk don’t just come out for anyone. It was only right that the parade ended at Meadowbank and I just sat in the stand and said to myself: ‘This is mental.’

“And the best bit was my Vauxhall Viva being driven onto the track so after it was all over I could jump right in and get home quick.”