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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Allan Wells interview - "Kids lack the drive"

Allan Wells interview - "Kids lack the drive"

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1 Allan Wells interview - "Kids lack the drive" on Thu Mar 22, 2012 1:06 pm



Allan Wells, former sprinter and Olympic champion

Allan Wells, far left, stretches for gold in the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Picture: Getty

The Scotsman
Sunday 11 March 2012

I HAD the drive to win 100m Olympic gold so why haven’t today’s kids? asks sprint legend Allan Wells.

SO MUCH of it has passed into folklore – from the false start to the dip at the line and the photograph of a dead child sent to him by British government officials in the build-up – that you wonder why Allan Wells’ 100m gold medal at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow has not been more inspirational.

Never mind the American boycott in protest at the Soviet army’s invasion of Afghanistan, which some said tainted his triumph. Wells, who was urged by UK authorities to pull out, became the first Briton to win athletics’ blue-riband event since Harold Abrahams in 1924. He was also the first Scot to do it, and unless his country undergoes the most unlikely cultural transformation, he will be the last.

When Wells, who now lives in Surrey, made a rare appearance north of the Border the other night, primarily to promote the Street Sprint initiative run by Scottishathletics, there was no disguising his frustration that, 32 years after his momentous victory, more have not taken up the baton.

With London 2012 this summer, and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow two years down the line, the shortage of sprinters and, more disturbingly, elite athletes of any description emerging from these shores is galling for the man who is an icon of Scottish sport.

Sure, the problem is not Scotland’s alone, otherwise he would not be the last white man to race in an Olympic 100m final, never mind win the gold medal, but as hundredths of a second are repeatedly shaved off the world record, the time of 10.11secs run by Wells in one of the Moscow heats is still the fastest-ever by a native of this country.

Invited to explain the lack of progress on Scotland’s tracks, he goes through all the motions, wishing that kids had fewer distractions in the electronic age, and that more public money was used to fund them but, when it comes down to it, he just wishes that Scottish children wanted to be, well, a little more like him.

It is a big ask. Wells, born and brought up in the Fernieside area of Edinburgh, was a one-off, a peculiarly driven individual who started out as a long-jumper and triple-jumper, decided in his mid 20s to take sprinting seriously, and did so with the kind of all-consuming, sometimes eccentric, dedication that many of today’s athletes would not understand.

“It’s a frame of mind,” he says. “That six inches between our ears can make or break us. I had the opportunity and took it with both hands and both feet. I screamed at myself on the track, I did everything possible, but you have to be quite foxy, or wolfy, whatever you want to call it. You have to understand a wee bit about life, how you are going to do things and approach targets. A lot of what I did was second nature. The individual has to be quite cunning.”

By way of explanation, he recalls the time, not long after the 1980 Olympics, when he was yelled at in an Edinburgh street by someone claiming that the boycott rendered his gold medal worthless. Rather than get angry, like the woman for whom he was signing an autograph, he resolved to prove the critics wrong, which he did by taking on, and beating, the Americans in Germany later that year. It was a big and unnecessary risk but when one of his vanquished rivals, Mel Lattany, told him that he would have won in Moscow, no matter the field, the Scot knew it had been worth the gamble.

Some of his methods were rather more subtle, like the way he dressed for training. While one of his team-mates used to parade down Tranent High Street in his Great Britain vest, Wells wouldn’t even wear it to the track. He says that, for psychological reasons, he used to turn up in ripped cotton jogging bottoms. It was all part of what he describes as a “hypnotic obsession”, an unwavering faith in the power of his own commitment.

“That’s what it is all about. Commitment. It’s a hard life as an athlete and, if they can commit themselves to eight, nine, ten years, then 20 years after they have finished, they can say ‘I have given everything’. They will not be looking back 20 years later, saying ‘if I had just done this or that’.”

Wells, who also won a 200m silver in Moscow, has no regrets. Inspired by his wife and mentor, Margot, who now coaches former Scotland rugby player Thom Evans, he became renowned for his work with the speedball, and for the weight training that developed his upper legs and body. As for the mental challenge, he spoke only rarely to the media for fear that it would be a drain on his energy.

His guard has dropped a little since then. In the east end of Glasgow, at the home of Shettleston Harriers, where he is mixing with children in a Come-and-Try session, he gladly gets out his gold medal in the hope of demonstrating what is possible. “I look at kids nowadays and it just seems that they don’t know where they are going. It’s empty inside and I am saying ‘where’s the virility, where’s the stimulation?’”

Wells says that he didn’t need to be stimulated, and still doesn’t. Even now, if he had the body to do it all again, his mind wouldn’t let him down. Ask him if it feels like 32 years since his finest hour, and he replies: “No it doesn’t. It makes me think I should come back again. I am still stimulated. I keep saying to people, ‘if I had a hard drive, you could just take it out of me, plug it into them, and away you go,’ but it’s not that easy.

“I had my time. It was tough, really tough. I know Margot wouldn’t want the kids to go through what we went through. It’s a hardship, a big commitment and [you need] a very selfish attitude toward the sport, but I am standing here talking to you because I have a gold medal, an Olympic gold I’ve got to say. It’s not like a European gold or a Commonwealth gold. . . I’ve got four of them.”

These days, Wells works at the University of Surrey, and is an ambassador for London 2012, which may or may not explain his take on the case, to be heard later this week by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, between the British Olympic Association and the World Anti-Doping Agency. There has been speculation that the BOA’s policy of lifetime Olympic bans for athletes who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs will be overturned, a decision that would allow Dwain Chambers, the English sprinter, to run in this summer’s Games.

Wells has never been slow to register his disgust with Chambers, at one point saying that he would sever all links with the BOA if he was allowed to return, but there is now an air of weary resignation about the Scot when it comes to the BOA bylaw. “I think it will get removed, from what I can gather. If you do your time, you do your time. There will be a lot of people spitting but, at the end of the day, we will accept it. It’s a new attitude, a new rule. The BOA will be biting their tongue, and a lot of people that supported it will also be. I did support it, there’s no question about that.”

Which is not to say that he thinks Chambers has an earthly in London this summer. “There’s going to be quite a few guys there and he’s going to be 34. From now, I think it will just go downhill for him in terms of performance because your body is changing. Unless his body is being kept up…”

For Wells, Usain Bolt is the man to beat. He does not expect him to repeat the false start that led to his disqualification from the World Championships last year, although Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay and Christophe Lemaitre will ensure that it is no formality. “It’s going to be very exciting,” says Wells.

A bit like it was 32 years ago.

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