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Off to a flying start as sport's new home bursts into life

IF the inaugural athletics international at the Emirates Stadium today matches the atmosphere and quality of Glasgow's first indoor match at the Kelvin Hall 25 years ago, then a capacity crowd will be able to savour a feast and Scottish all-comers' records should tumble regularly.

Lynne MacDougall, then McIntyre, right, in a photo-finish with Bev Nicholson back in 1988. Picture: Ian Hossack
Lynne MacDougall, then McIntyre, right, in a photo-finish with Bev Nicholson back in 1988. Picture: Ian Hossack

The new £113m arena is on a different planet, yet the Kelvin Hall was regarded as state-of-the-art when Great Britain beat France there on February 6, 1988. Three future convicted drug cheats were in action at that Dairy Crest match, two of them winners: sprinter Linford Christie and shot putter Paul Edwards. The third was so-nearly world record-breaker Butch Reynolds, already a global 400 metres icon.

An unsuspecting public applauded, and in that age of innocence, reporting for the then Glasgow Herald, we enthusiastically endorsed them. Ben Johnson changed that climate when he lost the Olympic 100m gold for steroid use that summer in Seoul. Ever since, suddenly emerging arrivals have been viewed with scepticism. Yet that does not mean we should doubt performances today.

The late Andy Norman, then promotions officer for the sport, described the Kelvin Hall as "the finest indoor arena in Britain, and one of the best in the world." The sport's previous UK home was RAF Cosford, where sprinters sprinkled soap powder on the flat concrete bends to aid traction.

Ayr Seaforth's Brian Whittle took the 400m in a Scottish record of 47.03. The tightness of Glasgow's bends were confirmed when Whittle lowered that record a month later in claiming silver at the European Indoor Championships in Budapest. He broke it in heats, semis, and final, finishing with 45.98.

Dougie Walker is a distant second on the all-time rankings, at 47.33, in the Kelvin Hall. Whittle set the native best there at 46.52. "That was probably my best run – better than Budapest," he said last night. "But if I was still running now, I believe I could go faster on this new track. It is spectacular: probably the best I've ever seen, the width and height of the bends and length of the straights – much more gentle."

Whittle's time in Hungary was then seventh on the world all-time list. Now it is merely ninth in Britain. "That shows how much tracks have improved," he says.

The home crowd were treated to a men's 1500m victory by Gary Brown in 1988, but the best finish came in the women's 1500m. Lynne MacDougall (then McIntyre) appeared to have dead-heated with Bev Nicholson, but Glasgow's teenage Olympic finalist was later denied by the photo-finish, with both runners credited with 4:18.27.

Christie won the 100 and 200m in Scottish all-comers' records of 6.67 and 21.11. He then anchored Britain to victory in the 4 x 200m, despite having to run every step a lane outside the world record-holder, Bruno Marie-Rose. Scot Willie Fraser, in his first relay, helped the quartet set a Commonwealth and UK all-comers' best.

The 60m all-comers' mark is 6.51, set by another drug cheat, Jason Livingston. It could fall today to yet another convicted doper, Dwain Chambers.

Reynolds made much, in an exclusive Herald interview, of his religious upbringing, and God guiding his running. But was it more to do with steroids when he smashed the world best that year in Zurich, and was part of a US sweep of the Olympic podium in Seoul? Whittle, eliminated in the semis there, said: "It was alleged to me before the Games, by a US athlete, that all their 400m squad were on drugs. "I trained like a monster, but knew I could never get near the times they were doing. That was the main reason for my move to 800m. I reckoned that event was much cleaner. I also think I may have been cheated of European 400m gold."

Whittle lost to an East German, a nation now known to have orchestrated state-sponsored doping. Reynolds ran the second fastest time ever in Glasgow – it would have been a world best until the previous evening – but was disqualified for leaving his lane.

The American later served a two-year suspension for alleged drug abuse, but claimed mistaken identity over his urine sample. A court in his home state of Ohio awarded $27m in damages against the world athletics body but a federal appeal ruled it had no jurisdiction.

Whittle believes the sport is now far cleaner than when he raced. Perhaps. But I strongly feel the athletics authorities should strike all cheats' performances from the record books, rather than leaving them to taunt and tempt future generations.

Home eyes today will be on Edinburgh's 800m Olympian, Lynsey Sharp, running just 48 hours after her return from Kenya. "That's the ideal time, coming from altitude, but I'm treating it as fun," she said. "It's five years since I last ran 800m indoors, and I have been doing the longest runs of my life in Kenya."

Sharp has beaten the fastest woman in the field, Ekaterina Poistogova (2:00.73) before, but the Russian improved by a staggering five seconds last year, and 17 at 1500m. In the prevailing climate, that raises eyebrows.

The cheapest seat in 1988, albeit with restricted views, cost 50p, a mind-boggling 7400% cheaper than the dearest today, priced £50.

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