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Sandra Whittaker's trailblazing flame is still lit

AS she looked back yesterday, approaching the 30th anniversary of her Scottish 200 metres record, Sandra Whittaker struggled to explain its durability.

Sandra Whittaker, pictured at the 1986 Commonwealth Games, set the Scottish 200m record at the Los Angeles Olympics. Picture: James Galloway
Sandra Whittaker, pictured at the 1986 Commonwealth Games, set the Scottish 200m record at the Los Angeles Olympics. Picture: James Galloway

In the pre-lottery era athletes were at the mercy of an inadequately-equipped NHS (probably instrumental in the premature end to her career at 24) and reliant on community goodwill which extended, for her, from Celtic FC to a benevolent employer and a weekly package of meat from an East Kilbride butcher.

Whittaker won Commonwealth bronze at successive Games (4x400m in 1982, 200m in 1986), competed at the inaugural World Championships in 1983, the 1984 Olympics and 1986 European Championships and won seven Scottish titles. Her victory in the 1984 Olympic trials at Gateshead, running in lane eight to book her 200m place in Los Angeles, was the most surprising result of the trials.

She set a Scottish best of 22.98 when fifth in the LA quarter-finals. Her heat included the eventual champion and first ever 200/400m double gold medallist, Valerie Briscoe-Hooks. Both third and fourth in her heat (with four to qualify) were timed at 22.97, just one-hundredth ahead of the Scot who was 10th-fastest of the 30 runners. But there was no fastest-loser qualification then, and she was eliminated. Kathy Cook (23.02) and Joan Baptiste (23.11) had run slower, but both advanced.

The hardest thing to believe, looking back, is not that this is still the Scottish best, but that she herself never improved on that time.

"I certainly expected to run faster in my life," she said yesterday, "and I think if I'd got through, I would have run better in the semis. I felt at ease with my run, and felt there was more to come, but it was not to be. I can't believe it's still up there, and there's an element of wishing someone would come along and get that standard back into Scottish sprinting. I thought Lee McConnell would break it, but she has retired. I can't believe it's stood for 30 years."

Whittaker first knew she could run fast in primary school. "I'd always be challenging people: 'Race you from here to the lamppost.' Everywhere I went, I ran. I used to run home at lunchtime, let out Sheeba, our collie, then run back to school."

Her first taste of championships was the 1982 Commonwealths in Brisbane. She led off the 4x400m squad which, with Anne Clarkson, Angela Bridgeman and Linsey Macdonald, set a Scottish best of 3:32.92 to win bronze.

Four years later, in Edinburgh, bronze in the 200m was the best she could hope for against defending champion Angella Issajenko and world and Olympic bronze medallist Cook. But her joy was tempered by revelations at the Dublin Inquiry that Issajenko was a serial steroid user like her infamous Canadian compatriot, Ben Johnson.

It says much about Whittaker's gracious nature that she harbours no bitterness. "I just found it terribly sad," she said. Her coach, Iain Robertson, gave her a copy of Issajenko's book, Running Risks, in which the scale of her cheating was laid bare. On the fly leaf he wrote: "To Sandra - should have been silver."

Her initial reaction, she recalls, was "almost anger, but not quite. More sorrow - thinking how sad they'd had to do that to get where they got. When I read her book - her lifestyle, how it all happened, how she got into it, almost duped in some ways - do you believe or do you not? But reading her story kind of softened me to it.

"It's so sad, that poor girl, everything that happened and once she had the realisation that she was taking performance-enhancing drugs, she was in too far. It's almost like I felt sorry for her. OK, so it could have been silver, but I can look at everything I've done, look at my medals and say I did that through hard work, commitment, all by myself without any enhancement whatsoever. My own natural abilities. I'm proud of that."

It did not influence her retirement. By the time of the Dubin revelations she was victim of a bad hamstring tear, at the 1986 European championships in Stuttgart.

"A second Olympics in 1988 was my goal, but it looked like I'd need an operation. There was no guarantee it would heal, and I knew the work needed to get to that standard and maintain it. I just had to retire, much to my upset and hurt. Rab [Robertson] tried to persuade me to compete at club level, but I could not face being beaten by people who would never normally have done so."

She pays tribute to Celtic. David Hay's daughter was a member of her club, and the Parkhead manager helped arrange for her to see physio Brian Scott. "He was fantastic with me. I could not go to Scottish team physios in hospital. They were good, but did not have the equipment, and money was not put into athletics then. Brian had to get players back on the pitch as soon as possible and had equipment which was better than the NHS. He could have me back on track quicker than the athletics physiotherapists," she said.

"But I was seeing him privately. I had to tell him that I could not afford to come any more. He said we'd sort something out. If I'd had to continue paying big money, I could not have done it. It was almost like sponsorship. I could not have done it without him. Even when he was away with the team his wife, Vicky, would see me. I can't praise them enough. They got me through various injuries.

"I made it because of a combination of things like that. My boss, at a refrigeration firm, gave me three months' paid leave before Los Angeles, and a local butcher gave me so much meat I could not eat it all. Every week I'd get the equivalent of seven steaks and pork chops - the best cuts of meat. Natural ability is a factor, but Rab's training - I was so fortunate. He was into all the intricacies, and I was so lucky to be in his group. His expertise took me to the top, and he brought in guys because there was no female sprinter to draw out the best in me."

Robertson's attention to detail was legendary. Before the Brisbane Games he obtained a tape of the official Aussie starter. Then, to ensure his athlete would not be put off by a 50,000 crowd, he persuaded Celtic to stage a half-time race, with the official starter's commands.

"Edinburgh '86 was fantastic. The home crowd in Glasgow will give such a lift. I can't begin to explain it. The hairs on the back of my neck prickle, even talking about it. But I will be watching on the box. We could not get tickets. I applied as a volunteer, and said I'd been an Olympic athlete and Commonwealth medallist. I never heard anything from anybody."

Now Sandra Seenan, mother of 20-year-old Stephen and Christopher, 22, she works as directorate support manager for NHS Lanarkshire.

Giffnock North have approached her and she will do some sprint coaching in the near future. She will also be the starter at their Festival of Running on June 12. Visit www.giffnocknorthrunningfestival.co.uk

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