For Randall, journey is more important than the destination
ONE recalls Graeme Randall for several reasons: primarily as Scotland’s first world judo champion and for the Commonwealth gold medal which he won at the risk of life-threatening injury, but also for two brutally contrasting interviews.
As world champion, Randall travelled to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 on a tide of surging expectation but was eliminated in the opening round. He was among the most distraught competitors I have ever interviewed. Two summers later he won Commonwealth gold in Manchester while suffering from a prolapsed disc, and his joy and relief matched that which attended any triumph I have witnessed.
But then he agonised about continuing to the Athens Olympics, in an attempt to achieve what had been denied him. He told me then: “I knew I was putting my neck on the line. For three months there were constant sleepless nights and loss of sensation in my left arm.’’
He had two young sons and he and his wife, Joanna, decided the risks were too great. He walked away at 27 and became a pioneer in UK Sport’s elite coach programme. Randall subsequently broadened his apprenticeship in a number of significant roles and now has what he describes as: “the best job in the world – lead manager for sport and education at the National Recreation Centre at Inverclyde.”
The 39-year-old is also manager of Scotland’s judo team for Glasgow 2014, which he says is “an amazing honour”. The 14-strong squad (seven men, seven women) will be selected in a fortnight’s time. The sport is back on the Games’ programme for the first time since 2002, when Randall’s gold was backed by three silver and six bronze medals: the most successful judo team ever. The Glasgow 2014 coach is Davie Somerville, a silver medallist in 2002.
Randall was European junior champion and world junior bronze medallist while studying PE at Edinburgh University. He competed in three world championships and two Olympics. Twelve years after finishing on the mat, his sporting appetite is undiminished, though he acknowledges trying to “break away” from judo as a profession and a career. “I wanted to diversify to the broader sports spectrum but my immediate ambition is to make sure we get a full team to the Games and see them perform to the best of their ability. If they do, we’re going to have a very happy judo team.”
Randall participates in a fast-track coach programme that included mentoring by such as rugby’s Clive Woodward, motor racing’s Allan McNish, and Yogi Breisner from equestrianism. Randall then coached the UK judo cadet squad for three years, worked as Scotland’s head coach at Ratho, and as a sports development officer at sportscotland, with weightlifting, table tennis, badminton, Horse Scotland, Scottish student sport and the Scottish Sports Association.
Yet is there a festering regret over having been a potential Olympic champion only to fail on the day? “The connotations of bereavement spring to mind,” Randall responds unhesitatingly. He’s clearly assessed this before. “For me it was a very similar emotion – of having something so close to you, something you wanted to have, and all of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, it’s not there. It was a very sudden and tragic emotion that I felt.
“I knew I’d never have another chance of going to the Olympics. It was like a bereavement: you had lost somebody close to you and you were never going to see them again. It was a very similar emotion. But do
e aim is to have a full team at the Games and to ensure they perform to the best of their ability
I have hang-ups about not winning? No. Because the journey and process of trying to become Olympic champion made me the person I am today. Would winning the gold medal have changed me or made me a better person? Probably not. The most important part when you look back is the experiences you had in trying to get there.
“Before you can win at the highest level – and win with dignity and honour – you have to learn to lose, and learn to cope with losing. Anyone who goes through their competitive career thinking they’re unbeatable is flawed. Their personality is flawed, and their ability to be a judo player is flawed.
“They need to understand themselves and their place in the judo tapestry, and understand that on any given day, there are hundreds of judo players who can knock you over and could beat you. It’s having respect for everyone you compete against.” Even for a world champion? “Yes. Probably more so, because that’s a very temporary position. You spend years preparing to climb Everest but you’re lucky if you spend 30 minutes up there before you have to come down again.
“When you are younger, you probably don’t appreciate the process. It’s only now I can look back, when I have the pleasure of watching my old training partner Euan Burton go through a really exciting judo story himself. We talk about what made us different from other guys, and it’s very much about taking care of preparation, about getting the journey right. Don’t worry about the destination.”
Randall’s terminus proved to be Manchester. “It was a really serious neck injury and other aspects of my life were starting to exert a stronger pull. There was the risk that I might be tempted to carry on to Athens, to try to finish my career on a different note, but that would have been fundamentally dangerous.”
And so he has joined a new breed of sportsmen whose talents are acknowledged by employers as an asset, not a liability, and these transfer from the sports arena to business. “It’s not what you know or what you do,” says Randall. “It’s how you conduct yourself. To become world class, you have to have conducted yourself differently from 99.9% of the population. That percentage difference is how you conduct yourself in meetings, in company, with strangers and with society in general. It’s about assimilating and processing what you learn.”
Scotland’s judo status owes much to the national centre at Ratho. “How can you have a sport that has produced world medals an European champions and not have a national centre they can call home?”
Would it be different if Scotland was independent? “For any Scottish sportsman to compete on the world stage, they need an infrastructure that matches and exceeds their own aspirations. Our Scottish system has undoubtedly improved: infrastructure, facilities, the network behind it. There have been massive steps forward. There’s still work to be done. We need more players competing at a high level. But no matter what, competitors will still be turning up to train the day after the referendum.”
Commonwealth gold, he says, was “my proudest moment being a Scot. But my best sporting achievement was the world title.”
His sons, Ewan, 13, and Robbie, 11 tomorrow, have not followed their father on to the mat, “Living in Largs, they are both very much into sailing. And that’s my hobby now, too. I have a Hunter 23.”
WORTH THE WAIT: Graeme Randall shows off his judo gold medal won at the Manchester Commonwealth Games, two years after the ‘bereavement’ of Olympic failure in Sydney.