New coach Burton sure his judokas can kick on
Gold medallist intends to build on Glasgow 2014 success by nurturing Scots judokas to Olympic glory
The Commonwealth Games were fantastic for us but as a programme we have got ambitions to put a Scottish athlete on a world or Olympic podium
FOURTEEN months have passed since Euan Burton, guided by a somewhat erratic Scottie dog, carried the saltire into Celtic Park to the synthesiser strains of The Shamen. The veteran signed off on an illustrious career in judo with first place in the -100kg category last summer as Scottish judokas racked up six golds, two silvers and five bronzes in total at a stunningly successful games, but rest assured this stern standard-bearer for Scottish judo has no intention of allowing the sport to let its levels drop. He dons the hat of national coach next Saturday as the Emirates Arena plays host to the Glasgow European Open, the latest staging post in his latest mission, which is to ensure that one or more of his charges goes on to land an Olympic medal in the sport like the one which eluded him at London 2012.
“I said quite quickly after Glasgow that it was great for the sport – absolutely amazing for the sport of judo – but the worst legacy we could leave would be that in five years or 10 years’ time, everybody is still talking about judo at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow,” said Burton, who is employed seven days a week as high performance coach at the sportscotland institute of sport. “If, in 10 years’ time, people are still saying ‘wasn’t Glasgow 2014 the best thing that ever happened to judo in Scotland’, I think that would be a pretty poor legacy, actually.
“What I hope people are saying in 10 years’ time is ‘wasn’t that a good platform for the sport, and now we have an Olympic medalist, or an Olympic or world champion’,” he added. “The Commonwealth Games were fantastic for us but as a programme we have got ambitions to put a Scottish athlete on a world or Olympic podium. We have done it at World Championship level before but we have never done it at Olympic level. Our aspirations are to be top of the tree.”
This, it must be said, is no easy feat. The qualification standard for Rio next summer involves being ranked in the top 22 athletes in each particular weight category, although the task is eased somewhat by the fact that competing nations can nominate only one participant. As for the world championships, Burton’s bronze medal in the -81kg category on the sport’s sacred ground of Tokyo back in 2010 was the last piece of precious metal which any British judoka has celebrated. The Olympics, of course, visits the Japanese capital again in 2020, where martial arts will take centre stage.
“If people had no chance of winning a medal then we wouldn’t be sending them,” insists Burton. “We would send them to events we feel they could medal at. As for the Olympic Games in Rio, it is almost as hard to qualify as it is to medal. The process is so difficult, particularly if you come from Europe, that if you qualify then you really have got a shout. If we qualify two players we have two shouts. But we could qualify anything up to six to seven players from this centre [Edinburgh], and that would be six or seven shouts. So yes I would be disappointed if we came away from Rio without a medal.”
While the move from participant to coach has involved some transition, Burton reckons he would derive as much surrogate success from that as anything. It is worth pointing out at this point that his wife Gemma (nee Gibbons), after silver at the London Olympics in 2012, is also working towards a second Olympic medal in Rio.
“My coaching journey has been two or three years; my athletic career within judo was not far off 30 years,” said Burton. “Even when I was a six or seven year old and I was just starting up in the sport, I knew about this thing called the Olympic Games which was the spectacle in the sport. At that time I never thought I would get anywhere near it. I got seventh – I wouldn’t say I got that close.
“But I know from people who had tiny pieces of impact into Gemma’s career that they feel a lot of pride that they played a part, even if it was just when she was a ten-year-old child and stepped into their club two or three times,” he added. “So if you are actually coaching somebody who gets a medal I feel it would be a fantastic feeling. As a coach, you can’t fight their fights for them. You can’t do their training for them. But you can give them some help on the journey.”
While Burton, veteran Sarah Clark and Louise Renicks, one part of a golden Commonwealth Coatbridge double act with her sister Kimberly, have all moved out of day-to-day action in the sport, home hopefuls Andy Burns (-90kg) and Patrick Dawson (-73kg) will be looking for crucial Rio qualification points. Their competition includes other Commonwealth Games champions such as Ashley McKenzie (-60kg), Owen Livesey (-81kg) and Danny Williams (-73kg), and emerging young Scottish talents like Neil MacDonald (-60kg), Stuart McWatt (-81kg) and Valentino Volante (+100kg).
The third European Open in successive years in Glasgow also promises to be a litmus test as to whether the event will continue at the Emirates Arena moving forward. “With my Judo Scotland hat on I would love it to stay in Scotland. It is a great event and we put it on very well,” he said. “The players love fighting there.”
And what about that flag? Is it flying proudly in his back garden in his native Edinburgh? “I didn’t get to keep the flag, no,” said Burton. “But I have got a Scottish flag with lots of different signatures from the opening ceremony. And lots of pictures of me with the flag, which is nice. And thankfully I didn’t stand on or trip up over the Scottie dog, which very nearly happened!”
FLYING THE FLAG: Euan Burton carried the Scottish saltire at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games