Right on track for a golden age

Young Scottish athletes are out of the starting blocks and on their way to the podium to collect international medals again, reports Roddy Mackenzie

Scottish athletics is set for another golden era - but it will take a few years to come to fruition. As some quarters bemoan the lack of world-class talent to follow in the footsteps of championship sprinter Allan Wells, 3,000m runner Yvonne Murray and 10,000m champion Liz McColgan, one top coach believes it is only a matter of time before Scotland is challenging for Olympic medals again.

Jimmy Bryce is well placed to make a judgment. The Fife-based coach guided 400m specialist Linsey Macdonald in her early years and is now coach to Gemma Nicol, among others. At 15, she was Scotland's youngest athlete at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester this summer.

Both athletes were pupils at Queen Anne High in Dunfermline when they captured nationwide headlines, Linsey when she competed in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games at the age of 16, winning bronze in the 4 x 400m relay, and Gemma when she won her Commonwealth call-up for the women's 4 x 400m team.

Mr Bryce is aware that there are now more distractions than ever for young athletes but he believes the current crop coming through schools who want to go on and make the grade at full international level are as dedicated as any of their predecessors.

Gemma Nicol has made outstanding progress. At the British Schools International match for under 17s at Scotstoun in Glasgow a week before the Commonwealth Games, she set a championship record in the 300m and anchored the 4 x 100m relay squad to victory in a new Scottish national age-group record.

"I think there is reason to be optimistic about the future," says Mr Bryce. "I think the coaching programme the Scottish Athletics Federation has put in place over recent years is starting to bear fruit.

"A lot of the really good coaches in Scotland, such as John MacDonald and Stuart Hogg, are not getting any younger but there are many good young coaches coming through. I'm talking of coaches aged around 25 to 30 who have the qualifications and it is now a question of them getting experience.

"I think four or five years down the line, Scottish athletics will be in great shape. (Our) young athletes look pretty strong in every track event up to 800m, and in the field events.

"At the British Under-15 and Under-17 Championships in Sheffield, twice we saw Scots first, second and third on the rostrum. At the schools international at Scotstoun, our girls slaughtered the English four in the sprint relay and that was a tremendous achievement.

"There are athletes like Gemma, Kirsteen McDiarmid (also a Queen Anne High pupil) and Morag MacLarty (Perth High), who are all outstanding prospects."

Mr Bryce, who also coaches sprinter Nick Smith, aged 19, a former Stewart's Melville College pupil and Scottish schools indoor 60m record holder, acknowledges the girls' prospects look brighter than the boys', given there were no Scottish winners in the boys' events at the schools international at Scotstoun in July. But he knows athletes mature at different rates and it was not so long ago that there were concerns about the dearth of talent in girls' events.

"It is true, generally, that there is not the depth of talent that we had 20 years ago. You can see that in Scottish championship events, where there can be a big gap between the times of the top three in an event and the fourth-placed athlete," he says. "But there is a lot more for children to do now than there was then and it's a different environment.

"I have a group of nine 10 and 11-year-olds that I coach at my club (Dunfermline and West Fife) and they are very dedicated. However, I don't think there are enough competitions for the 11 to 13-year-olds in Scotland. Over the summer I've been taking my athletes to compete at the Highland Games, as they need the experience and hardness that comes with competing."

Mr Bryce confesses to being disappointed that no strong school-athletic club links are being formally developed in his area, especially as Pitreavie has a strong tradition in the sport and the Dunfermline and West Fife Athletic Club is producing international-class athletes. While there are school sports co-ordinators at the five Dunfermline secondary schools, none has a remit for athletics. He believes an athletics co-ordinator would help the sport thrive. Meanwhile, the responsibility will continue to lie with clubs.

Mr Bryce knows that because of the growing number of leisure activities open to children, the ones who stick with athletics do so because they are dedicated and thus will be more likely to succeed at senior level. He realises that it is not an easy path to follow and financial sacrifices have to be made. Gemma Nicol has been given a little cash support - "A local millionaire gave her pound;50," says Mr Bryce - but she has had to invest in five sets of running spikes costing pound;120-pound;130 each.

Her mother, Wendy, knew all about hardship as an athlete when she competed for Scotland at cross-country running. With seven children to look after, her parents were not able to spend much on a budding athletics career. She has vowed to give Gemma all the support she can to ensure she reaches her potential.

Mr Bryce has pledged to give her the best coaching he can. "I don't want to make comparisons between Gemma and Linsey Macdonald but I am the coach and I will make the decisions,.

"Maybe 22 years ago with Linsey I was a bit naive, as too many people wanted her to compete.

"There was pressure on Gemma to compete in the World Junior Track and Field Championships in Jamaica last month but we decided the Commonwealth Games was better for her. She could have won a 4 x 400m silver medal in Jamaica but I think she has to take things gradually."

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