Scullion believes the best is yet to come as he prepares for Tokyo test
National marathon champion among the more frank and frankly more interesting of Irish athletes
Stephen Scullion: “You do the sport because you love it and you’re passionate and want to see how good you can be. I ran 12 miles over a mountain this morning because I enjoy it, and I’d do that whether the Olympics are happening or not.” Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
The best sports stories are the ones where we can also find ourselves
Con Houlihan always told me the good sportswriter will find the best stories in the losing dressingroom, because that’s where we see more of ourselves, the hurt and regrets and the mistakes we can’t take back.
Something and everything about that came to mind after talking with Stephen Scullion this week, if only in trying to work what it was that set him apart. Certainly from most other interviews so far this year, or from those who by the nature of their sport have perfected the art of saying nothing at all.
Scullion wasn’t speaking from any losing dressingroom, his running career far from a loss either.
Reigning national champion, he was talking primarily about his final preparations for the Tokyo Olympic marathon, the fastest of the three Irish men qualified thanks to the 2:09:49 he clocked at the elite-only London Marathon last October, over two minutes faster than he’d run before, and 11th best in a strictly elite field of the world’s finest marathon runners.
That by the way also stands as the fastest official Irish marathon; John Treacy’s Irish marathon best is still considered the 2:09:15 he ran when finishing third in Boston in 1988, although for record purposes Boston is considered a slightly downhill course.
It turned out Scullion was sitting in the same bedroom in the Belfast family home where he promptly admitted to waking up a few days before last Christmas in a pool of his own drunken vomit. All perfectly okay to admit to now, because he hasn’t touched an alcoholic drink in the 141 days since.
To those who know him, Scullion has always been among the more frank and frankly more interesting of Irish athletes, his own popular running podcast and social media presence further evidence of that.
For whatever reason athletes in my experience – Ciara Mageean comes to mind too – invariably finish above average when it comes to articulating the most interesting parts of their lives, or at least the parts of honest interest. Maybe because athletes, perhaps more than any other team or individual sport, experience more lows than highs, especially given the properly global competitiveness and nature of it all.
Scullion was also quick to point out he didn’t necessarily have a drinking problem; he was just a problem drinker.
That pivotal moment of realisation came last December, when he arrived back in Belfast from his usual training base in Flagstaff, Arizona, and promptly went on a binge-drinking session. Walking up that next morning prompted him to cancel plans to spend Christmas at home, and get himself properly cleaned up, which is exactly what he did.
Indeed now, at age 32, he believes his running career is only getting going. He’d needs both hands to count the number of times he’d quit before, only to discover some irresistible urge to start back.
There is nothing more common in any sport than wasted talent, and the realisation Scullion was at different times headed down the track, having held so much promise since his champion schoolboy days at Wellington College Belfast, had sparked such reawakening in the past, only this time he feels more real about it.
He spoke at greater length about why, Tokyo on or off, he will always be found running.
“You do the sport because you love it and you’re passionate and want to see how good you can be. I ran 12 miles over a mountain this morning because I enjoy it, and I’d do that whether the Olympics are happening or not.”
He’s also started a free running clinic on Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings at Ormeau Park in Belfast, as some way to further illustrate that.
“I’m incredibly lucky it’s my job and it’s my work to train but I wanted something where I give more back and something to give me something to do other than sit on the couch and rest.”
Gore Vidal, in one of his many eloquent moments, once said that music or art or by my turn sport must firstly inspire, and secondly entertain. Although not strictly in that order. Typical of Vidal, it still sounds both timeless and modern, and while Scullion entertained he also inspired if only in setting out to make the best of the here and now, not the there and then. Just because he takes anti-depressant medication doesn’t mean he wakes up every morning glowing with happiness.
“If you take a hay fever tablet and run off into a field where there’s grass, you’re still probably going to have hay fever, and an anti-depressant medication tablet cannot fix everything, it can help. I had to fix a lot of things in my life that gave me a chance to be happier.”
Old Baron de Coubertin had a lot of things in mind when he came up with his trusty Olympic motto – citius, altius, fortius – only from day one it wasn’t the winning that mattered, but the taking part. Just as the important thing in life is not to triumph but to struggle, or should that be the other way around?
Maybe long gone are the days when sportswriters like Hugh McIlvanney enjoyed proper access, any proper insight even, to those at the very top of their game, before continually being squeezed out to the point of near extinction.
Few of us will ever get to share moments like McIlvanney did throughout his almost 60 years of excellence, including his 1974 interview with Muhammad Ali on the banks of the Zaire River, just hours after Ali beat George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle.
It’s all there, lasting details such as his household staff being asked to “fix two steaks and scramble about eight eggs” for Ali, while he’s “lying back on the thick cushions of an armchair in his villa, with the windows curtained against an angry sun that was threatening to evaporate the Zaire River as it slid like a grassy ocean past his front door”.
And that perfect closing line – “maybe both he and boxing should quit while they are ahead” – still can’t be read without weeping.
These days we’re often left weeping for other reasons, by the strictly anodyne tone of the subject, and still there is the occasional reminder why the best sports story and interview are also the ones that hold up a mirror to yourself.