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On the road to stardom

Scotland has had few international athletes recently but record-holder Meg Ritchie tells Roddy Mackenzie the pathways are laid to help those who aim for the stars.

Scottish athletics has never had a problem regarding the number of willing participants. An impressive 900 children took part in last weekend's British Aerospace Primary Schools' Road Relay Championships in Grangemouth, opening the Scottish Schools' Athletic Association's winter season. Next Saturday the secondary schools' event will be run there.

The concern in recent years has been where the next Yvonne Murray, Liz McColgan or even Meg Ritchie is going to come from. It has been clear that, over the past 20 years or so, Scotland has been producing fewer and fewer athletes of international stature. Meg Ritchie's Scottish records in the shot-put and discus have stood since 1983 and 1981 respectively. The Scottish women's 100m record was set by Helen Golden in 1974.

Since returning to Scotland from the United States, Meg Ritchie - now Mrs Stone - has had a chance to mould the future of Scottish athletics under the role of high performance coach for the Scottish Institute of Sport. She firmly believes raw talent is still around in Scottish schools and a focal point has been found for it in the development of under-17 and under-20 training squads, started 18 months ago through sponsorship from the Bank of Scotland.

Mrs Stone has had a close look at the athletes currently coming through schools. Although her job brief does not include primary children, she believes that by the time a youngster is 11 or 12 they must have a clear picture of what they want to do with themselves in a sporting context.

The counter-argument has been that children should not specialise too early and be given the chance to try various sports. However, Mrs Stone says that if someone wants to succeed at the top level in athletics, then he or she has to focus on the sport at an early age.

"I think it is important that children have fun with sport but that by the time they are 11 or 12 they should have an idea of what they want to do," she says.

"I know there are other views but I think a youngster needs to apply himself or herself to a particular discipline and I don't think there is any advantage in a young sprinter trying out the shot-put if they don't want to, for example. There is so much to learn that they need to concentrate on developing any talent they have if they want to get the most from it."

Mrs Stone's views may be controversial in some quarters but she is not advocating this for all children who play sport, only for the ones who have the talent and ambition to pursue their sport to their full potential.

The Bank of Scotland-sponsored squads - which number about 130 young athletes - meet every four to six weeks for coaching clinics. Mrs Stone believes that, because of commercial funding, there is now no need for an athlete to go out of Scotland to succeed at international level.

"It is different from when I was competing, when we had squad sessions once every blue moon," she says. "Yes, there was a lot of talent around, but I was brought up in an environment where my father said you had to work for everything and if you wanted to succeed at something, you had to fully apply yourself. You couldn't go into it half-heartedly.

"I'm not sure if the current generation of schoolchildren still have that philosophy. But the pathways are now in place for them to achieve what they want in Scotland. It may seem like just another glib phrase but 'pathways' really is the best way to describe it."

Now that Scotland has the sports facilities and the support networks, it needs testing competition and that is still found outside the country. Early signs of Scottish competitiveness from the Bank of Scotland development squads are encouraging, with 17 medals taken at last summer's Amateur Athletic Association (UK) Championships at under-17 level and 10 medals won at under-20 level.

"We have to ensure that athletes have access to relevant competition at an early age, which will help them improve," Mrs Stone points out. "If we have a sprinter who can run 10.6 seconds, then we must find him competition so he is running against athletes who are doing 10.5 and 10.4. Then, once he is running those sorts of times, we must be looking at competition where they are running 10.2 and 10.1. If that means going outside the UK to find it, then we now have the finance to do that."

Athletics has had a particularly hard time in recent months, with a drugs ban against sprinter Dougie Walker and other athletes falling foul of the new, stricter tests. But Mrs Stone does not believe the sport is riddled with drug-taking and does not believe there is any cause for concern for parents.

"I don't really like to talk about it much, because it simply is not that big an issue. I think people have seen the case and then thought 'Oh, drugs and athletics again', but every sport has individuals who are willing to try to make their performances better by using drugs. Athletics is by no means unique and our sport is tested probably more regularly than any other with the exception of weightlifting."

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