A View of Athletics: Kerr’s world indoor triumph in Glasgow sparks memories of the glories – and glitches – of the city’s own Tom McKean

 

 

The World Athletics Indoor Championships, which just concluded in the Glasgow Arena, are still ringing in my head in classic post-gig fashion.

The 19th edition of this event was a blast. The two concluding evening sessions produced a dizzying sequence of hits. The beat went on and on…

World records? Courtesy of Femke Bol and then Devynne Charlton, they were provided on Saturday and Sunday night. As Meatloaf had it, two out of three ain’t bad.

Josh Kerr takes the gold for Team GB in the 3,000m, photo by Dan Vernon Photo for e

Historic resonance? Oh yes. Who will forget the emotion that choked out of Julien Alfred after she had glid past Poland’s quirky, engaging, super-fast-starting Ewa Swoboda in the women’s 60m final to become the first global medallist for her home country of St Lucia – and a gold medallist at that?

And there’s always an extra buzz when a home athlete wins at a Championships. That happened to a band playing as British pole vaulter Molly Caudery and Scotland’s Josh Kerr secured gold within an hour of each other in the jam-packed Saturday evening session.

Just over six months after surprising Norway’s Olympic champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen – but emphatically not himself – to win the world outdoor title, the 26-year-old from Edinburgh earned himself another place atop a global podium with utter certainty.

It took me back…oh yes, it took me back…

Wavy lines…mood music…bagpipes?… I think not…The Proclaimers? Yes…I’m Gonna Be perhaps… took me back to Glasgow. That is, Glasgow in 1990.

On March 4 that year, the city’s own Tom McKean, winner of the World Cup 800m in Barcelona the year before, lived up to his billing with a performance of equal certainty to Kerr’s as he claimed the European Athletics Indoor title at the Kelvin Hall – five miles down the road from where the Glasgow Arena now stands.

Tom McKean, photo courtesy of Scottish Athletics

McKean led all the way, creating a two-meter gap and hitting the halfway mark in 53.35 before holding off the challenge of Spain’s Tomas de Teresa and claiming his first international indoor title in a Scottish indoor record of 1:46.22.

I covered both those victories and was present when McKean won European outdoor gold in Split later in 1990 and returned to the boards in 1993 to win the title at the fourth World Athletics Indoor Championships in Toronto.

Less than 18 hours after his training partner Yvonne Murray had earned Britain’s first gold of the Championships over 3,000 meters in the cavernous Toronto SkyDome—home to Major League Baseball’s Blue Jays—McKean got everything right once again to earn another place atop the podium.

Although…well, we’ll get back to that.

McKean managed to get into the lead as the lanes broke, brushing aside the physical challenge of Brazil’s world outdoor silver medallist Jose-Luiz Barbosa and crossing for gold in 1:47.29.

Afterwards. Well…

Wanting to phone home, Tom came up to the press box to use the Glasgow Herald phone line being used by my widely beloved colleague Doug Gillon.

To reach us from the arena floor, he had to take the single lift provided, the efficiency of which had already been commented upon by that stage of the proceedings.

His call—maybe calls—lasted quite a while. Eventually, Dougie began to bestir the newly minted champion to haste, not for reasons of economy but because his medal ceremony was being organized.

Following calls of increasing urgency, Tom eventually rang off and raced out.

Josh Kerr, 3000m gold, WIC Glasgow, with Yared Nuguse, silver, photo by Dan Vernon Photo

I will refer now to my report from the time, which earlier mentioned the basic misjudgments—slowing at the line—that had prevented Mr. McKean from qualifying for the Tokyo World Championships and Barcelona Olympics.

“Sadly, McKean relapsed into his old ways before the medal ceremony, which he missed after telephoning his family from the press stand. He was delayed in the lift and ran to the podium as the closing bars of the National Anthem echoed away.”

Ah, Tom.

Twenty-six years later – what happened there, by the way? – I almost bumped into Tom McKean in the Glasgow Arena, nominated then as the Emirates Arena, as it hosted the European Athletics Indoor Championships.

At the end of the session, another Scottish athlete, Laura Muir, completed a golden 1500m/3,000m double. While the local heroine was rightly feted, the local hero of old went unnoticed.

As I came across him among the crowds streaming from the arena, I recognized a face that had hardly changed over the years.

He was just a face in the crowd – which was how he wanted it to be, having preferred not to be involved in the build-up to the event.

Work commitments had prevented McKean from attending the previous two days of competition—he had been a policeman in the city for 22 years—but on the closing evening of the program, he was, once again, in the same sporting arena as Sebastian Coe, who narrowly beat him to European outdoor gold in 1986, attending in his capacity as President of World Athletics.

As he explained, while fellow spectators moved past him into the night air, his hometown triumph in 1990 had been engendered by a characteristically brilliant piece of motivation from the then-British head coach, fellow Scot Frank Dick.

“After the semi-finals, Frank comes up to me and says: ‘Tom, I’m going to do a bit of reverse psychology on you. You be Frank Dick, and I’ll be you. Tell me how I run the race.’

“And I said, ‘If I was you, I would say you’re fastest in Europe. Stay out of trouble.’

“And Frank said, ‘You’ve answered your own race plan. Now just go and execute it.’ And that was it—that was the total of it. It was amazing; it was just a light bulb moment.”

Josh Kerr takes 2021 British Champs Title at 1,500 meters over Jake Wightman, June 26, 2021, photo by Getty Images for British Athletics.

Reflecting on those who were filling his place in Scottish middle-distance running, he mentioned Jake Wightman.

“He is a talented boy.

“I spoke to Jake recently, in fact. He came up to talk to me when I was working at Glasgow Airport, so we had a nice little chat.

“I think if anyone is going to get near my Scottish (indoor) record, it could be him. But we’ll see.

“All I want is for one more year, then that’s been held for 30 years!”

Wightman lived up to all of McKean’s hopes a couple of years later.

But the old hero retains his badge of honor. The Scottish indoor record still stands at 1:46.22…

Tom McKean, photo courtesy of Scottish Distance Running History, photo by European Athletics 

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