September 25, 2021

Sporting Nation: When Allan Wells was the world’s fastest man

Spread the love

Throughout July, BBC Scotland’s Sporting Nation series is reflecting on some of the greatest feats and personalities from Scottish sporting history. Here we look at Allan Wells who won 100m gold at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

The Olympic 100m final tends to be the place to settle the debate about the fastest man alive, but Allan Wells’ coronation as the world’s best sprinter perhaps only truly took place two weeks after his golden Olympic moment.

The Scot had edged Cuban Silvio Leonard on the line to secure a stunning victory in Moscow and gold for Great Britain. But the names absent from the starting blocks overshadowed Wells’ big moment.

Sixty-six countries, led by the United States, boycotted the Games in protest at the Soviet-Afghan War. American sprinters Stanley Floyd, Mel Lattany, Carl Lewis and Harvey Glance were all removed from Wells’ path to Olympic glory. “It degraded the Games in a way,” the Scot said in a 2014 BBC interview.

But in a meeting in West Germany less than two weeks later, the Americans all returned for a race many felt would establish beyond doubt who was the undisputed 100m champion.

“They were distraught as athletes to have missed the Games,” Wells recalled. “They would have gone to Moscow. I think it was just common sense that what happened shouldn’t have happened.”

An Olympic champion still with a point to prove when he agreed to race in Koblenz, Wells again left his rivals in his wake to cross the line first. “For what it’s worth, Allan,” Lattany told him, “you’re the Olympic champion and you would have been Olympic champion no matter who you ran against in Moscow.”

Refusing to bow to government pressure

Although Britain did not follow the American lead in boycotting the Moscow Games, Wells says behind the scenes Margaret Thatcher’s government were applying pressure on athletes not to take part.

“We were getting a number of letters posted to both Margot [his wife] and I,” said the Edinburgh-born runner. “When the letters came through they had a little government stamp, and Margot would open them. I reckon we probably got three or four.

Allan Wells celebrates victory in the 100m final at the Moscow Olympics
Wells won the 100m final at the Moscow Olympics in a time of 10.25 seconds

“I accidently opened one; I was just curious. I opened it and there was a picture of a young girl in Afghanistan, and it showed that she was dead. Her hand was a few inches from a doll.

“There was two ways you could look at this. I felt very sorry for the child and the parents, but I also felt very angry that I got this letter with this sort of information in it.”

Wells refused to be influenced by the government, aware that the Games represented his best chance to win 100m gold and convinced his actions would have no bearing on the conflict in Afghanistan.

“It was quite difficult to deal with, but you have to look at these things sensibly. I just felt that, whether Allan Wells was at Moscow or not, it wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said.

“It was a very difficult decision and it was left up to the individual athletes. We all felt that politics shouldn’t have been in the Games at all.”

Taking inspiration from Edinburgh 1970

It could so easily have been a historic 100m/200m double for Wells in Moscow. His explosive start put him in with a real shot at gold in the 200m final, but he was hunted down and pipped on the line by Pietro Mennea of Italy. Still, a gold and silver medal represented a superb return.

Two years later, Wells won 100m gold at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, but it was the experience of volunteering at the 1970 staging of the Games in Edinburgh that lit the fire within him and gave him the drive to make it to the top of the athletics world.

“It allowed me to see first-hand the real attitude in world-class athletics,” he added. “I saw Don Quarrie winning the 100m and 200m. I saw Lynn Davies, Marilyn Neufville running the 400m, a new world record.

“It was a phenomenal experience, a phenomenal atmosphere. To be in that atmosphere with the athletes at that time was just incredible, something that I thought I’d never actually experience again.”