How better to limber up for Glasgow 2014 than by reading the definitive history of athletics in Scotland?
It began as a whisper at the start of the summer. “Have you seen this terrific book about the history of Scottish athletics?” someone asked me at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham. Nearby, a Scottish athletics writer within earshot chipped in, “It’s very, very good.” Seconds later another Scottish journalist added: “Definitely – it’s highly recommended.”
They certainly had my curiosity and when I heard the intriguing title – The Past is a Foreign Country – it only made me keener to get my hands on what was apparently a magnificently-written and researched publication. So, with Glasgow 2014 imminent and a wee bit of Scottish blood coursing through my veins courtesy of a mother born in Kirkcaldy, I tried to get a copy immediately.
Its grainy black and white cover, an intimidating 284 pages and plenty of early-summer AW work to keep me busy meant the book sat on my ‘to do’ pile for a while. But with an 11-hour train journey from the south-west of England to Glasgow on the eve of the Commonwealth Games, it was destined to be my No.1 companion for the long journey.
So it proved. Co-authors Colin Shields and Arnold Black, together with a number of guest writers such as Doug Gillon and the late Tony Ward, have done a terrific job producing a book that is far more than a dry, statistical summary of the sport in Scotland. Instead, the features are colourful and entertaining and do justice to the incredibly rich history that the country possesses.
Shields and Black named the book “The Past is a Foreign Country”, but the past is also a beautiful country, especially when tracing a history that dates back 130 years and includes such legends as Eric Liddell, Allan Wells, Wyndham Halswelle, Yvonne Murray and Liz McColgan – to name just a few.
Fittingly, the IAAF president Lamine Diack has written an introduction. In this, he likens Scottish athletics to the world governing body of the sport. It is a strange comparison, but contains some logic when you consider that Scotland has roughly the same number of athletics clubs as the IAAF has member nations. These clubs also range from those based in cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh to the outer Hebrides and Shetland – almost as diverse as IAAF member nations.
In addition, Diack pays credit to an athletics governing body in Scotland that has origins that date back to 1883 – making it the second-oldest in the world behind the Amateur Athletics Association – and has staged a number of world and European cross country championships, European Indoors in 1990 and the Commonwealth Games in 1970, 1986 and, now, 2014.
Alongside Diack, Sir Menzies Campbell, the politician and former international athlete, describes the book in his foreword as “the most imaginative and detailed work” about an area that “has always provided a rich and colourful blend of character and incident”.
Weaving through its pages – and dancing from chapter to chapter to prioritise areas of special interest – it is impossible to disagree. The book is split into three parts – chapters featuring the all-time greats, a history of the Commonwealth Games in Scotland and, finally, 100 profiles of the many talented track and field performers the country has produced – and you will struggle to find any errors or dull sections.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Tom McKean, the enigmatic 800m runner from the 1980s and early 1990s. But Scotland has produced great athletes across all the disciplines and there is something for everybody.
» The Past is a Foreign Land, by Colin Shields and Arnold Black, is a Scottish Association of Track Statisticians publication and costs £12