IF YOU don’t follow judo, there are probably two things you know about Euan Burton, and both of them stem from last summer’s London Olympics.
The first is that he is the athlete who gave one of the most searingly emotional interviews ever delivered as he walked off the mat after unexpectedly losing in the opening round to Canadian Antoine Valois-Fortier. The other is that he is the male half of judo’s answer to Posh ’n’ Becks, while his better half is English Olympic silver medallist Gemma Gibbons, the girl whose instinctive dedication of her medal to her dead mother made her one of the Games’ most memorable stories.
There are few certainties in life, but one of them is that by the time next year’s Commonwealth Games draw to a close, we will all know a great deal more about the veteran judo player. Not only is the 34-year-old a coach for a 14-strong Scottish team which is expected to return a big haul of medals – at Manchester, the last time the sport featured in the Games, a third of Scotland’s medals came from the judo mat – but he will also be one of Scotland’s best medal hopes and the face of Scottish judo.
It is, he cheerfully admits, a position in which he never expected to find himself. As far as he was concerned, he would compete at London 2012 and then call time on his career. Had he captured the gold medal he’d dedicated his entire life to winning, that’s exactly what would have happened. Instead, not only is he eking another two years out of a body which has already had 15 years at the very top of the sport, he is doing so in the most unexpected of circumstances by competing in the 100 kilo weight category rather than the 81kgs where he won all five of his world and European Championship bronze medals.
“I wouldn’t have gone on to the Commonwealth Games if I’d won gold in London,” he says. “After the Olympic Games I told British Judo that I didn’t want to be considered to fight at that top international level because I knew I was joining the Scottish Institute of Sport and wanted to concentrate on coaching. I knew I’d never fight at 81 again because I used to have to diet quite heavily to make 81 kilos and when you’re only responsible for yourself that’s acceptable, but when you’re responsible for coaching 30 other people it’s not fair if you’ve got mood swings and your concentration isn’t quite what it should be because you’re cutting weight and dehydrated.
“The natural thing was to fight at 90kgs, which is the weight above 81kgs because that’s about what my resting body weight is now, but we’ve got a couple of strong players at that weight in Matthew Percy and Andy Burns, plus Sam Ingram, the Paralympic silver medallist from London at 90kgs, who is looking to push himself into the Commonwealth Games team. As a coach, I wouldn’t feel right competing against guys who could possibly win a medal, so I decided to step up to 100 kilos and see whether I could do anything.”
Despite fighting against top judo players who are ten years younger and 15kgs (two and a half stone) heavier than him, Burton hasn’t just survived, he has excelled. A fortnight ago in Belgrade at a World Cup event, the Scot won a gold medal to become one of the few judoka to have won World Cup gold at 81kg, 90kg and 100kg. In the course of the tournament, however, he encountered an unexpected problem.
“I used to have to diet to make 81, but now I have to drink and eat before the weigh-in because if I don’t weigh more than 90kgs then I’m not allowed to compete. I’m then having to fight guys who, by the time they’ve rehydrated, are nearer 105kgs, which is over 15kgs heavier than me.”
But Burton is a canny soul and has adapted quickly. Sensing that the elite, technically outstanding 100kg fighters “would probably crush me to death”, he uses his greater speed and intensity to take the sting out of their strength in the early stages of bouts and then goes to ground, which is where he wins most of his matches against fighters who are bigger and stronger than him. Yet he is adamant that this is a one-off, and that once the Games have been and gone, he will never fight competitively again. He is also keen to scotch any idea that somehow winning a medal at the Commonwealth Games would atone for the disappointment of London.
“I’m really looking to repay judo in Scotland for all it’s done for me with a medal, and then that’s it, call it a day. But no matter what happens in Glasgow, it can’t change what happened in London. Everyone remembers the interview, and the disappointment I expressed as I left the mat hasn’t changed; I’m still as hurt by failure as I was two seconds after it happened. I dedicated a huge portion of my life almost exclusively to the pursuit of becoming Olympic champion and when that doesn’t happen, of course it hurts.
“It always will, but since London I’ve got married and become a working man with a job. I have a huge passion for judo and dedicated my life to becoming a champion, but if that’s all there is in your life then when it’s gone you’d have a pretty soulless existence and that’s not the case – I’m very, very happy, my wife is about to compete for the opposite team at the Commonwealth Games and I’ve got a chance to do something for Scotland. But whether I do or don’t add to the medal tally for Scotland, that won’t be what I judge myself on.”
Burton’s preoccupation now is how the 14-strong Scottish team will come together over the next five months, with the build-up to the Games starting this week at the Glasgow European Open at the Emirates. Burton believes that Scotland are strong in both sexes, with the women boasting sisters Kimberley and Louise Renwick in the lightweights, rising grand prix star Connie Ramsay, European champion and three-times Olympian Sarah Clark, successful GB heavyweights Sally Conway and Sarah Adlington, plus a raft of youngsters like Stephanie Ingles, Jody Mullan and Sam Clark. It’s much the same on the men’s side, where older players like Matthew Percy and James Millar are being pushed by tyros such as European cadet championship 60kg medallist Neil Macdonald.
If there’s one aspect of the Scottish squad that has made Burton particularly happy, it is the lack of a credible Scottish woman contender at 78kgs. It is one thing moving wife Gemma to the frozen north (“she used to think that Edinburgh’s like the Arctic, although she’s now fallen in love with the city”), but it would be quite another for Burton to coach a Scottish judo player against his own wife.
“That would have caused some problems,” he laughs. “Instead, I and my whole family will be arriving with our English flags and rooting for her.”
What chance two gold medals for the first family of judo?