RUNNING was not a sport in my youth.
It was a necessity. Indeed, running was only involved tangentially (a small, sweet orange, since you ask) in sport. We accepted all sport involved running but this is not why we did it. It was about the love of the ball, about confounding opponents, about the joy of winning a 12-half-time, 25-the-winner match and walking home hungry, grass-strained and strangely satisfied, given that one was 27.
We also accepted that football necessitated running if a window was broken, a cop car came past or if one nutmegged Big Frankie who wore steel toe-capped boots to match the steel plate in his napper.
In short, one only ran as part of another sport or to distance oneself from trouble, or both in the case of rugby. Running was only a sporting activity at school. This involved white shirts, black shorts and a PE teacher. The PE stood for Psychopathic Enforcer. These are more enlightened times and there are even some PE teachers now who can eat cooked meat and communicate in a primitive form of guttural noises but back then the major surprise about a PE teacher was that they had learned to walk upright and had a set of opposable thumbs which they used exclusively to test that the medicine ball was as hard as a money lender with a grievance.
They did not involve one much in sprinting. That was too easy. It might even have been fun. Their speciality was the torture of the cross country. They lived for sending young men scampering across wasted farmland. A bit like Earl Haig but with more malice.
Thus running as a sport was to us anathema, in fact it was a twothema. We hated it and it prejudiced us against athletics. There were exceptions, of course, my wee mate Pat would have outlasted a Duracell bunny on steroids. He just ran and ran and ran. He once finished a cross country race in a different time zone from the rest of us.
But many of my generation only came back to athletics as spectators.
There is a better chance for youngsters today. PE teachers are knowledgeable and supportive. Clubs are generally friendly and all-inclusive. One of my best post-Olympic gigs was to go to St Roch's on Royston Road to meet Ms Gemmell who was helping her pupils who had the modest ambition of being gold medallists. Then it was on to the Scottish schools championships where it was impossible not to be uplifted by the efforts of competitors and volunteers.
But here is something strange. A mate of mine who is involved in athletics tells me that one of the barriers to improving the depth and quality of the national athletics squad is that pupils who want to take part are derided as geeks. It is apparently not cool to be an athlete at school.
Therefore, kids who are desperate to commit to sport face the added hurdle of being slagged off for their efforts. Back in the day, being good at sports was considered a free pass when it came to being the butt of jibes. There was a guy in my Primary Six class who thought algebra was lingerie but survived because he could not only trap a ball but could do so while investigating with a nicotine-stained finger the deeper recesses of his nasal cavities.
Wee Pat, the cross country phenomenon could not trap a ball with the aid of six gladiators with a net, and his educational attainments could be as spotty as a dalmatian with chicken pox. But he was admired because he could do something far better than the rest of us.
Athletic prowess was considered admirable. The ability to outrun outraged householders, cars with flashing blue lights and homicidal maniacs thankfully encumbered by wearing steel toe caps was looked upon not only as evidence of an ability to survive but as a sin of enviable prowess.
The Psychopathic Enforcer stopped many in my generation from pursuing an interest in running. But the more enlightened PE teachers of today are desperate to do the reverse. They want to help children fulfil their potential and enjoy their sport.
This message of sporting positivity should be shouted from the rooftops. The slaggers should be ignored. And if they persist, perhaps some of the leaders of PE classes past could be persuaded to come out of retirement and subject them to a double period of mandatory masochism.