Brian Whittle interview: Running track to debating chamber

Imeet the onetime owner of the most famous lost shoe since Cinderella in Stirling, a city where a castle is available but Brian Whittle has been delayed by traffic en route to a meeting in Dunblane so we end up grabbing coffees in the train station cafe.

Third from the right, Brian Whittle with Roger Black, Du''aine Ladejo and David McKenzie after winning the 4 x 400 metres relay event at the 1994 European Championships in Helsinki
Third from the right, Brian Whittle with Roger Black, Du''aine Ladejo and David McKenzie after winning the 4 x 400 metres relay event at the 1994 European Championships in Helsinki
Third from the right, Brian Whittle with Roger Black, Du''aine Ladejo and David McKenzie after winning the 4 x 400 metres relay event at the 1994 European Championships in Helsinki

Thankfully there is still a decent amount of time for a long chat, which is a good thing, as the 53-year-old former medal-winning athlete turned politician has a lot to say and a fascinating story to tell about his journey from the running track to the Holyrood debating chamber.

We’ll go on to discuss his thoughts about the upcoming athletics world championships in London, the rollercoaster ride he had in business after he retired from the sport and his surprise, “accidental” road into elected politics, where, as much to his surprise as anyone else’s, he now finds himself the Scottish Conservative spokesman for health education, lifestyle and sport.

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But there is only one place to start – that unforgettable moment when he was “Shoeless in Stuttgart”. It was almost 31 years ago when Whittle was selected to run the third leg for Great Britain in the 1986 European Championship 4x400m final.

As he took the baton, second leg runner Kriss Akabusi trod on his heel and removed his right running spike. Unfazed, the Scot ran a then personal best 400 time of 45.09 without it to hand over in a good position to Roger Black to anchor home the gold.

“Just every single day,” says Whittle with a smile when asked how many times in a given week he gets asked about Stuttgart and the missing shoe. “It doesn’t get wearing these days. When I was still an athlete I would often be ‘hey, wait a minute, I have done other things you know?’. But look, what happened that day means I am better known than I possibly should be. I was a journeyman athlete really at international level.

“I would make the teams all the time, ran for Great Britain 45 times, but in terms of the superstars of the sport… well you just have to look at who was kicking around at the same time as me, your Crams, Coes and Ovetts. It’s maybe a strange thing to be remembered for, but it’s nice to be remembered.”

Coming a few weeks after what he admits was a disappointing showing in the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, his first major outdoor event, Whittle went on to revel in a brief glow of post-Stuttgart fame, with appearances on breakfast TV and A Question of Sport. He was 22 at the time, the same age as his middle daughter and dad-coached budding athlete Rachel is now.

As his career developed he was within his rights to point out other achievements in face of the barrage of shoe questions.

For the record, his roll of honour includes another European 4x400m relay gold in Helsinki in 1994 and a silver in same event for Scotland at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland in 1990. His individual 400m personal best of 45.22 came in the 1988 Seoul Olympics – “a personal best I can safely say will not be beaten” he says with a laugh, although he looks in good enough shape to run a lap quicker than most fiftysomethings, and certainly the journalist opposite him over a decade younger!

The story of Stuttgart has meant the Whittle legend has lived on and now the move into politics has brought him back to current public attention. He recently captured the mood of the nation when breaking down in tears at Holyrood paying tribute to his friend Doddie Weir, the much-loved Scotland and Lions rugby legend who had the previous day announced the devastating news that he had motor neurone disease.

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“He’s going to call me such a big Jessie. He is, in fact he’s going to call me a ‘small Jessie’ cos he’s the only man who gets away with calling me ‘Wee Man’,” said the 6ft 3in Whittle at the time.

The moving moment attracted warm praise from political opponents, a rare outbreak of cross-party unity which Whittle, who says the combative nature of the debating chamber is the aspect of his new profession he enjoys least, appreciated greatly.

Whittle, who played a bit of rugby in his youth and, as you might expect from a Troon boy, is a single handicapper golfer off 8, got to know Weir through his friend and former business partner, the former Scotland wing Derek Stark. “I only found out [about the diagnosis] the day before I was due to make the speech in parliament,” he explained. “I was actually expecting to see Doddie the following day at a charity golf event Steve Cram was hosting at Slaley Hall. Starky called me up with the awful news and told me Doddie had gone off to New Zealand on holiday with his family.

“It is such a shocker. He’s a great guy and they are so indiscriminate these awful diseases. I just knew I was going to struggle going into the chamber. The presiding officer clearly knew I was in trouble too and before I got up actually sent me a note with a handkerchief in it.”

Whittle was an industrial chemist prior to his athletics career taking off and, after he retired, he went into the sports and event management business, which brought a lot of fulfilment but also a few burnt fingers with companies folding.

The PB Events firm which he ran with Stark went bust after former US President Bill Clinton pulled out of an Aberdeen speaking engagement in 2008, leaving ticket holders out of pocket.

“They do say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger but I’m sometimes not so sure, that was a harsh, harsh time. We went from being one of the highest performing businesses within the bank’s portfolio to losing the company in six weeks.”

Whittle branched out into the digital world and a bit of sports social media and work in the field of health until the political calling came. He had his beliefs and opinions but never considered himself a political animal until, like so many in the country, the seismic referendum debate drew him further and further in. For some it was an inspiring time but for Whittle it was what he perceived to be the negative aspects which drew him to the fray.

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He made appearances at discussions arguing for the union and was at the Better Together function on the night of the referendum result.

“I hated the divisiveness, which lingers on,” he said. “I remember there was some whooping and hollering that night but not from me. A politician came up to me, shook my hand and said ‘we’ve won’ and I replied ‘what have we won? The country’s torn in two, now what are you politicians going to do about it?’”

Whittle then spoke at a conference when his speech “ripped everybody, Westminster, Holyrood, the Yes campaign, the No campaign”. He was followed on stage by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who remarked that Whittle was just the kind of person needed in politics. A seed was planted and he eventually agreed to stand, well beaten in the 2016 elections in the Kilmarnock seat but gaining entry on the South of Scotland list.

“I remember watching the results coming in and thinking, oh we’ve done well we might get another in on the list. Then it dawned on me that would be me. I was a bit in shock, switched my phone off, got the gear on and went for a long run wondering what the heck I was going to do.” What he has done is throw himself into campaigning on the issue of long-term health, with finishing touches being made to a policy document he will present to his party and the hope it then receives broader traction. Promoting more PE opportunities in state schools is one element but Whittle view is it in “much wider, joined up terms”.

“My eldest daughter Carly is a PE teacher and Rachel is now an NHS midwife so I have skin in the game.

“Preventable health issues are costing the health service and the country billions and billions,” he said. “Health education is the key and I don’t think anyone disagrees with that, it’s about getting something done about it. Obesity, diabetes, mental health are all massive problems and getting worse.

“Yet parties seem to get into this bidding war. We’ll give £200m to the NHS, then another says we’ll give £300m then another comes up with £500m. And yet there are billions and billions to be saved and redistributed if we can tackle long-term health.

“Part of that is PE in schools but there is lots more... more activity in adulthood, the nation’s relationship with food. It comes down to access to opportunities.

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“This stuff is hard. It’s not sexy. It’s not immediate. We’re talking about hopefully seeing results 20 years down the line. We’ve got to be brave. If we don’t change the way we look at health it’s going to be unsustainable.”

Whittle admits politics is the most time-consuming job he has had, making the long hours of winter training he used to slog out in his athletics days seem a stroll in many ways. But he is planning on being in London to enjoy a couple of days of next month’s much-anticipated world championships, although like many sportspeople he confesses to not being an avid watcher.

“I’ve always been more of a participator than a spectator,” he said. “I like to watch my daughter and other athletes I coach run. I do tape all the Diamond League events but don’t get around to watching much of them in the end.

“But these big events are always fantastic. I was at every night in Glasgow three years ago and really looking forward to London, especially with so many Scots doing well.”

Laura Muir leads that tartan charge as she bids for the 1,500m-5,000m double and Whittle said: “I think she’s brilliant. Such talent and such a great attitude.

“My nine-year-old youngest Emma was at a training session recently and Laura was there and chatting to her. Emma was just bursting heading into school the next day with a picture of her and Laura to show off.

“I think Laura has a great chance of medals. She has sometimes paid the price for her determination, laying it all out there, but that isn’t a negative, it’s only going to stand her in good stead moving forward.”

Whittle still hopes to see daughter Rachel, a talented junior sprinter, long and high jumper, fulfil her athletic potential now that she has returned after fixing a back problem. “She just flows, such a technically good athlete,” he beams with paternal pride.

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Another baton successfully passed. We shake hands and Whittle heads off to his next appointment, both shoes firmly in place.