Interview: Louise Martin

Glasgow's victorious Commonwealth Games bid leader Louise Martin. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Glasgow's victorious Commonwealth Games bid leader Louise Martin. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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MILLIONS of us would agree that 2012 has been the greatest year ever for British sport, but few could reach that conclusion with as much authority as Louise Martin.

She would not thank you for reminding her, but more than half a century has passed since she competed for Scotland in the Commonwealth Games. In the decades which followed, she has come to occupy an increasingly influential position in 
the sporting life of the country, in the process accumulating unrivalled experience of what it takes to succeed on the world stage.

Honorary secretary of the Commonwealth Games Federation, the global body which runs the four-yearly event, Martin also chairs the board of Sportscotland, and is vice-chair of the Glasgow 2014 organising committee, having led the bid which won the Games for the city back in 2007. She has been there. She has done that. She would have bought the T-shirt, but prefers to be more smartly dressed.

As happy as the rest of us to reflect on the events of the past 12 months, Martin is also insistent that what made 2012 so special should not be forgotten. In her mid-60s, she still has a restless eagerness to look forward rather than back; to understand what went right and why, and to replicate it as much as possible. Above all, she wants the success of the London Olympics to be emulated by Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games.

“I can’t think of any other year in which we’ve had such great success,” Martin says. “Not just in the Olympics and Paralympics, but in the Ryder Cup and so many other sports too. The only sports where it didn’t happen were football and rugby.

“There’s still a feelgood factor – everywhere you go, everybody still talks about it. The buzz is still there and long may that continue.

“I’d hate to think we’d get to 2013 and just let out a sigh and slump. We’ve got to keep something moving from this, and that’s why it’s good for Scotland that we’ve got the Commonwealth Games coming up.

“It’s less than two years away now, and we’ll soon be in the selection period for a lot of sports. We can’t afford to let these athletes down.

“We joked that London was our test event for 2014, but it was in the sense that we can learn from it. There were mistakes in London that we can learn from, and there were also so many things that went right that we can learn from as well. Ticketing wasn’t quite perfect, but if we learn from what they did, we can ensure that school kids from every part of the country, from throughout Scotland and the UK, can come and watch in 2014.”

Those mistakes in London were minor compared to the overall success, and the disappointments were also dwarfed by the triumphs. But Martin does not have to look too far back in her career to recall a time when Scottish and British teams at multi-sport events were not nearly so successful. Indeed, looking back to the Atlanta Olympics of 1996 and the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games two years later, she is convinced that we then had nothing like the team spirit which has been so much in evidence over the past few years.

“They had a rough time in the run-up to London because of ticketing and security issues, with guns on top of buildings and things like that. Then the first two or three days were rocky, but once you get your first medal it changes everything and builds up that momentum.

“That showed the importance of Team GB, and it also shows the importance at the Commonwealth Games of Team Scotland. In 1998 when we went to Malaysia we had a duff games: we really didn’t do well. We weren’t a team going in, we were a whole lot of different sports going in together. It was all insular. We hadn’t had a programme of training camps and building team spirit.

“Now we have that, and I think the same thing has happened to Team GB and Paralympics GB. They all come together for training camps, they all travel together and watch each other.

“Hand on heart, I think we’ll get the same euphoria and the same results in 2014, because it’s a home Games. I’m hoping for better than we did in Delhi [at the 2010 Commonwealth Games]. Eighteen months out, we’re not complacent at all, but I’m convinced we’ll have good team results in 2014.”

The Olympics for Martin really began one morning in June, when she carried the torch across the Swilken Bridge in 
St Andrews. She is sure that, provided she and her team get the organisation right, the Queen’s Baton Relay in the summer of 2014 can attract crowds as big as those who came out to watch the Olympic Flame as it was carried around the country earlier this year.

“You can’t describe that feeling of running with that torch. I was the first one on one morning in St Andrews, at 6.30am, and there were so many people out then. No matter what time of day it happened, it was packed. It was a fantastic honour to be asked.

“Everybody followed the torch all the way round the country, and I think the same thing will happen in 2014 with the Queen’s Baton Relay. In fact I think more people will follow it because they’ve had the experience of the torch in 2012. We have to make sure we get the baton relay absolutely right. Everybody has to have the chance to touch it, feel it and hold it, in every local authority in Scotland. We will go into all 32 authorities.”

Once the Flame was lit and the Olympics began, it did not take long for the British successes to begin. Mark Cavendish and Hannah Miley were unable to get the first day off to a golden start, but once those rocky days were out of the way, there was no stopping Team GB. There were so many memorable moments, but for Martin one had that extra capacity to inspire.

“My single best memory, the one that gets the heartstrings, is Katherine Grainger’s gold medal. When we were there watching it was a case of will-she, won’t-she, and trying to be positive.

“Even in the last 30 metres, when you could see she was that far ahead, there was still that worry. Then she went over the line, and it was ‘Thank goodness’.

“That was inspirational, because here was an athlete who had come second at three different Olympics, and come back and won it. She had the courage to stand up in front of everybody and say she was going to go for gold a fourth time, and she won.

“That was the most moving moment, I would say. Outstanding. But there were so many moments like that.

“For Mo Farah to win the distance 
double, for example. The way he did it was incredible.

“Or look at David Weir. He wins three events in the Olympic Stadium, and then goes out and wins the marathon as well.

“I think your favourite memory depends on what you actually witnessed. And even going to the stadium on a Saturday, when there were 70,000 people there at 11 o’clock in the morning. That was amazing.”

Martin knows, however, that behind every amazing achievement is a lot of unglamorous work. The success of the British cycling team, for example, did not happen overnight, but was produced by years of methodical effort.

What she hopes to achieve over the next few years by means of similar effort is a system within Scottish sport which can be the envy of the world. And the aim is to get that system in place no matter if the country votes for independence in 2014 or opts to remain part of the UK. “We are working on building up a world-class system that covers everything from the grass roots right up to the elite level. That system should enable our elite athletes to move seamlessly into the UK programme.

“Whatever happens in the referendum, we will have a system to look after all our athletes. We’re going to be world class whatever happens. We’re getting there. We’re not there yet.

“Ideally, it would be brilliant if we had homegrown world champions. That’s our aim. With some of the facilities we’ve got now, that’s what we should be aiming for. It will be interesting to see what happens with cycling now we have the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow. Once the word gets out that you can actually go and buy an hour session for £10, and once they try it, kids will keep going back. It’s not outside, it’s not cold, which is an attraction especially this time of year.

“If we had had a velodrome like this maybe a dozen years ago, Chris would not have moved to Manchester. You don’t need to go anywhere else.”

Martin herself has risen to her present position of prominence while still living in Dunblane, but has travelled the world in her role as CGF secretary. She is now in her fourth term, having been re-elected again last year, and has played her part in changing the composition of an organisation once dominated by very conservative male politicians.

“I remember when I was first appointed in 1999, I was the first woman ever to be appointed to anything to do with the CGF, and they did not know what to do with me. They couldn’t treat me as one of them. Someone would say ‘Right, gentlemen’, and I would have to say ‘Excuse me’, then they’d say, ‘Right, gentlemen and Louise’.

“It took a while to break down the barriers, and make them realise that I may be a different sex but my brain is just as good as yours if not better. Now we’ve got three women on the board, so that’s pretty good going in a short time.

“We now have a gender-equity rule within the Federation, that neither gender can drop below ten per cent. When the day comes that the board is mainly women and we have to vote for another man to get men back over that ten per-cent representation, that will be brilliant. It could come.”

Back home, the current priority is to find up to three new members for the Sportscotland board. Applications are open to anyone, and Martin hopes she can broaden the composition of the group. “We need board members who are excited by sport, and I would love to see some really young people come on to the board.

“We really need someone with financial expertise, and another with experience of women’s and girl’s sports. We’ve really been short of someone like that for some time, and we realise we have got to raise the number of girls and women taking part in sport.”

Last Sunday night’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year show gave Martin and the rest of us a chance to look back on the highlights of 2012. She did not vote, but was not displeased by the outcome.

“Bradley Wiggins won: I’m happy with that. The top three were exactly as I thought they would be. It was very close: for him to win the Tour de France and then Olympic gold was amazing, but then you could argue that Andy Murray winning Olympic gold and then the US Open was just as good.”

That was one of the joys of 2012: the fact that there were so many successes to witness, and to argue over which one was most impressive. But for Martin, the biggest success of all, inarguably, will be if we can learn from 2012 and go on from there to ensure that the best has yet to come.