Brian Whittle: I became a politician to help children get into sport
Getting to Know You
The Conservative MSP for the South Scotland region talks to Holyrood about fun times in Orlando, training for the Olympics and rolling around in lactic acid pain
What’s your earliest memory?
Hmm, I don’t know what I had for lunch yesterday… My earliest memory, now I think of it, was probably my dad taking my dog to the vet and the dog not coming back. I was only about three at the time, but the bit I remember the most is my mum saying “don’t you come back without him”. He was a rough collie called Shane and he wasn’t very old. I’ve learned since that he had a brain tumour.
What were you like at school?
A cheeky chappie. I got away with it most of the time. I was okay academically, integrated well and did a lot of sport – music as well. I was in the choir and even sang in a couple of operas – not only did we do operas but we did operas that people paid to see, although to be fair I didn’t have the voice for it. It’s deteriorated since, which is why I now play guitar. But I got involved in everything at school and because of that the teachers knew me pretty well so I got away with being cheeky.
You said you play guitar – you’re in the parliamentary band, aren’t you?
Yes. Since Covid, getting rehearsal time has been difficult but we’re talking about cracking on again soon. I’m the head-down, smash guitar guy. The way I warm up is to do a compilation of AC/DC tunes – about 10, one after the other. I’m a big fan of the Reverend Billy Gibbons and ZZ Top [the ZZ Top guitarist is ordained in the Universal Life Church]. We also do Bryan Adams and Fleetwood Mac because there are other people involved, although to be fair I quite like them as well.
You also represented Great Britain at the 1988 Olympics – did you get into running at school?
I started at school. My first ever race was when I was in P1 at Symington Primary School. I won that race and got thruppence. Had that come out I wouldn’t have been able to compete when I was older. The rules were really strict back then. I was encouraged to run at school and that’s one of the reasons I’m here in this parliament, because of the deterioration in kids’ ability to participate. Just about every sports person I know had a teacher influencing them and that’s now missing. I ran at school and then the local sports clubs – I was one of the founders of Troon Tortoises.
Racing at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall in a GB v US match
Do you still run?
Not as quickly. I went out running the other day and an old lady carrying her shopping walked past. I’m still exercising. I’ve got to the point where I’m purposely plugging in half an hour a day. About three or four months ago I realised the state I was getting into so I programmed it in. I run a couple of times a week and do whatever else I can – I never take the lift.
Who would be your dream dinner date?
Either Sir David Attenborough or Professor Brian Cox. Can I have them both? I think it would be a brilliant conversation. I wanted to be David Attenborough when I was young. I went to university not knowing what I wanted to do. I had this thing in my head about doing geophysics but did general sciences for a year then for some obscure reason ended up doing chemistry. I went to one of Brian Cox’s lectures recently at the Hydro and it was brilliant. Who would have thought that an astrophysicist could fill the Hydro? He’s normalised something that’s traditionally been considered highly technical and difficult to understand.
What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?
The list is long. I could probably tell you the worst thing said to me today. There’s so much stuff in politics but in track and field athletics too. I was fifth in the Olympic final [in 1988 Whittle was in the team for the men’s 4x400m relay at Seoul] and came home having been away for weeks and weeks when someone came up to me and said, “you were rubbish, don’t you think you should have a proper job?” I thought I’d done alright. I’d run the fastest time in my life and came back as British number one. That kind of thing happens all the time, especially on Twitter.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?
I’m rubbish at taking advice but when I’m coaching I always tell my athletes that as long as they can come off the track and say “that’s the best I can do today”, that’s enough. You should never let other people’s performance affect your performance. Sports psychology is about focusing on you and what you can deliver. If you focus on a medal it will impact on your performance because you can’t dictate what other people will do. In 1984 my coach said “what’s your goal” and I said the 1988 Olympics. At that time I was second in Scotland so it was in a different postcode but I focused on achieving the times seen at the Los Angeles games. I made it to the 1988 Olympics and ran 45.22 in the 400 metres, which would have placed me four years earlier, but by then the game had moved on and that wasn’t cutting it any more.
What’s the worst pain you’ve ever experienced?
One of the things that track and field is about is learning to take pain and we took lactic acid [a chemical the body produces to help break down carbohydrates for energy] which shouldn’t be allowed. You can’t sit down or lie down, you’re rolling about the floor and there’s nothing you can do about the pain. It’s like a blow torch on your backside. There’s no pain like it, but it teaches your body to assimilate lactic acid.
What was your best holiday ever?
Four years ago, when my youngest daughter was 11 [Whittle’s other two daughters are aged 28 and 37], I took her to Orlando. It was me and her for two weeks, just the two of us, going mad in Disney and Universal. Fantastic.