NINE months on from her retirement, Lee McConnell is sure she quit track and field at the right time. Now 36, the former European and Commonwealth Games medallist is equally confident that Scottish athletics is maintaining a steady improvement – and that the sport is less bedevilled by doping than is often suggested.
The ideal for McConnell, who won major medals at both the 400 metres hurdles and the flat 400, would have been to bow out in her home city last summer. But she had always insisted she would compete only if she could do herself justice, and, after giving birth to her son Ethan in October 2013, she decided to hang up her spikes last April.
The Scot’s former Great Britain team-mate Darren Campbell said last week he would discourage his own children from taking up athletics because doping allegations had made him lose faith in the sport. But McConnell and her husband plan to introduce their son to a range of sports, and said yesterday that, while the use of banned substances continues to be a concern, at no stage in her own career was she ever offered any.
“We would love Ethan to do sport – it doesn’t have to be to a high level,” she said. “We’ll probably try him out on different sports and see which one he likes and wants to go into. Every sport’s got its strengths and weaknesses.
“It was never an issue for me,” she continued when asked if the doping issue deterred her from encouraging him to take up athletics. “In all the years I was in the sport I was never, ever approached by anyone about drugs – about me potentially using drugs in any way. All the way from when I was 13 up to Olympic level. I came across everyone and I was never approached.
“It’s sad the sport has been damaged by doping allegations, but I can’t see how any other sport is different. If you have a sport where money can be made, any profession, you’re going to find people who are willing to take short cuts and cheat.
“All you can do is instil good values into your child, knowing that if he was approached, he would know that’s the wrong thing to do. I would never deter my son from doing sport – it’s got so much to offer.
“I grew up doing all different sports, and in none of the sports was I ever approached with drugs. You hear speculation, and you might look at someone and think ‘I’m not too sure’, but I was never confronted with anything like that at all. So my experience in athletics has been a really good one.”
Not wholly good, however. In the 2004 Olympics McConnell was a member of the GB relay team that came fourth, and although a member of the winning American quartet later tested positive, the US squad was never stripped of its medal. She believes in stronger sanctions against those who commit such offences.
“You’ve got people out there who are cheating, and it would be good to eradicate them from the sport. I think we need to look at more severe punishments for people who are caught doping.
“People say you can’t have a lifetime ban because they’ve got to be able to earn a living, but they’re taking a living away from clean athletes. It’s fraud. The Germans have looked at whether they can make it a criminal offence, so it will be interesting to see what comes of that discussion.”
Had she carried on, McConnell would now have been preparing to compete at next weekend’s Sainsbury’s Glasgow International at the Emirates Arena. She still plans to attend the event, but has no regrets about retirement, and has confidence in the country’s new generation of athletes.
“I think it was the right decision for me to move on. I wouldn’t have been able to get back into the shape where I could have medalled, and I always said I wasn’t going to go there if I wasn’t going to be able to run well and do something that I was proud of.
“Scottish Athletics is moving forward and is in a better position than ten years ago. That’s probably because of a number of things. If you look at the year before the Games, the number of PBs [personal bests] from Scottish athletes was really high – I think the chance of qualifying for a home Games spurred them on.
“Sometimes the Europeans or the world championships are a step too far. The Commonwealth Games can be good to get Scottish athletes into a major championships.
“I hope that experience they gained at Glasgow
inspired them, and that they start thinking ‘Four years
to the next one’ and put steps in place in order to look
forward to the next one in the Gold Coast.
“Meetings like this are all about gaining experience.”
• For tickets to the Sainsbury’s Glasgow International Match visit britishathletics.org.uk. Sainsbury’s is proud to be a long-term supporter of British Athletics and a champion of inclusive sport for all, from grassroots to elite level.