Commonwealth Games: Euan Burton’s Glasgow swansong

Fully thirteen of Scotland's 14-strong judo contingent wound up on the medal podium. Picture: Jeff Holmes
Fully thirteen of Scotland's 14-strong judo contingent wound up on the medal podium. Picture: Jeff Holmes
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THERE is nothing more satisfying for a player/coach than winning a gold medal yourself and seeing almost every team-mate end up on the podium. When you are a flagbearer too, there is no better way to show your leadership qualities.

In his last tournament as a judo player before retirement, Euan Burton succeeded in those respects and virtually every other one. Two years on from the crushing disappointment of losing his first fight at the Olympics, the 35-year-old won in the under-100kg category to help the judo squad become the most successful Scottish team in a single sport in the Commonwealth Games.

Until Saturday night, the record had stood at 12 medals, won by swimming’s class of 2006, in which Caitlin McClatchey, David Carry and Gregor Tait all took two golds. By the time the three-day judo competition was over, 13 of the 14-strong Scottish contingent had stood on the podium.

You had to feel sorry for Patrick Dawson, the only one who did not win a medal. But at the same time you recognised the truth of Burton’s verdict, delivered yesterday in the relative calm of Scotland House. This was not in any way a series of individual victories with just that one defeat: this was a comprehensive, collective triumph.

“I’m very, very proud of everybody, and that’s not just the players,” said Burton, who is henceforth a full-time coach with Judo Scotland. “Of course the players do the job on the mat, and I’m very proud of the guys who did that, but all the coaching and support staff played their part too. To get 13 medals, six gold medals, is testament to the hard work of everybody involved with the team.”

There was just one cloud that darkened the day for Burton: the failure of his wife, Gemma Gibbons, to win gold for England. If both had triumphed, it could have been the defining image of the Games, and certainly would have dominated the front pages of the Sunday papers: together with their medals, the Ascot-born Scot and the Englishwoman who lives in Edinburgh. Instead, like swimmer Michael Jamieson, Gibbons could only follow up Olympic silver with another second place. It was no consolation for her.

“In a sense it’s a little bit the reverse of what happened in London,” Burton said. “She got silver and I got nothing in London – very disappointing for me, fantastic for her. This time we both got medals, but really for her the silver medal was tantamount to getting nothing.

“Obviously she was massively disappointed, but she understands that’s the nature of sport. You can’t win everything, though that’s what you’re trying to do, and when you fall short of that it’s emotionally difficult to deal with.”

Gibbons now turns her attention to the world championships, to be held in four weeks. She and Burton had originally planned to be married after that event, but when she broke her wrist in spring last year they brought the date forward. “I said ‘You’re not going to be able to do any training – we could bring the wedding forward a bit’,” Burton remembered. “Two days later the band, the venue and the cake were booked. She took my throwaway comment quite literally and we were married six weeks later. She did everything.

“It was a great day – one of the happiest moments of my life. We already had a holiday booked around that time, so it turned into a pseudo-honeymoon.

“We arrived in Mexico and they had the worst rain they’d had for 36 years. Every road was flooded and people couldn’t get from the airport to their hotels. We got to the hotel and no-one was allowed to leave, so we played indoor games. Scrabble is Gemma’s favourite and she was whipping me at that, so she was happy and I was gutted.

“She doesn’t like to lose at anything and I’m the same. She hates it even more if she thinks I’m letting her win. She probably beats me at all the board games we play. I’d say my best was something like Risk, but having said that the last time we played that she beat me.”

Such compulsive competitiveness is a common aspect of a professional sportsperson’s character, but the humility which is an essential part of their sport helps judo players keep their feet on the mat.

“The truth of the matter is that once all that’s died down and you get off the rostrum, you’re the same person as you were going into the tournament,” Burton said when asked how he was coping with all the adulation. “What I learned off the back of Beijing and London is the people around you love you because of the person you are, not because of the medal that’s round your neck. I hope nobody likes me today more than they did yesterday because I’m a gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games.

“I spent 20-odd years as a full-time athlete trying to become an Olympic champion: that was my goal. So winning the Commonwealths is not going to make up for losing at the Olympics, but it is fantastic payback to all the people who have supported me.”