All eyes will be on the young guard for the 149th New Year Sprint, which gets under way today and builds to a climax with the final taking place during Monday’s National Hunt horse racing meeting at Musselburgh Racecourse.
Two 18-year-olds in East Kilbride’s Greg Kelly and Edinburgh student Michael Olsen are the defending champion and back-marker for the 110m classic, but 64 other sprinters have their eye on the £4000 first prize and perhaps even the £20,000 bonus being offered by veteran promoter Frank Hanlon for a time inside George McNeill’s mythical 11.14secs from 1970.
The winners of today’s ten qualifying heats on the synthetic track at Meadowmill Sports Centre in Prestonpans, plus ten fastest losers, will progress to Monday’s cross-ties (semi-finals) on the grass at Musselburgh.
Kelly goes in the opening heat, 12 months on from his convincing victory in last January’s final, but the University of Strathclyde student is unlikely to retain his title after handicapper Adam Crawford cut his start from 8.25m last year to just five on this occasion.
“It was kind of expected,” shrugged Kelly. “I thought I’d lose about three or four metres compared to last year. It’s going to be very difficult for me to win the race again. Nobody’s won it two years in a row since Willie McFarlane in the 1930s, so that tells you a lot about how difficult it is.
“The heat is going to be tough. Not having anyone close to me means I won’t start to catch them until later in the race, so that’s something I’ll have to focus on. I just hope I can win my heat and not have to wait until later to see if I get a fastest loser spot. Getting through the heat and then making it to the final again would be a great achievement in itself.”
Winning the race at the tender age of 17 might have been a heavy burden to carry, but Kelly feels he handled it well. “I got back to normal and back to training,” he said, “but winning gave me more confidence for other races. Initially it was difficult to juggle starting university with training, but I’m still staying at home, so I’ve been able to keep concentrating on my training.”
While the champion frets over his reduced start, he is better-placed than Olsen, who runs in heat six off just 1.5m. “I think it’s been a while since anyone’s started from that far back, but my 100m personal best from last summer (10.45secs at Scotstoun) was probably a big factor for the handicapper,” said the Edinburgh AC flyer. “It’ll take something special to win it, but we’ll see what happens.
“My first thought is getting safely through the heats. It’s my first time in a big race like this, so we’ll see how it goes. You’ve got to treat the qualifiers as a final because all the heats look pretty tough. The rest day on Sunday will really help, so that means I can go full out in the heat and not hold anything back.”
Olsen has already collected some silverware recently after picking up the prestigious Eric Liddell Award – he admitted it was “a big surprise” – at Edinburgh’s City Chambers earlier this month.
Another gifted 18-year-old, Emily Dagg, was scheduled to compete in heat five, but the Northumbria University student has revealed that she will not attempt to improve on last year’s third place finish. “I’m not running,” she confirmed. “I’ve just started university in Newcastle and I haven’t done enough training while I was settling in last term.”
Even in Dagg’s absence, heat five still appears to be the pick of the bunch since it contains 2014 winner Dylan Ali from Hawick plus 2017 finalist Calum McWilliam, with only one of them going through automatically.
Heat ten is equally intriguing as last year’s runner-up, Lasswade long jumper Jordan Charters, goes head-to-head with 2010 champion Daniel Paxton and former footballer and manager Graeme “Louis” Armstrong, surely the world’s youngest-looking 61-year-old. Another golden oldie, 1991 winner Doug Donald, is in Olsen’s heat and cannot be underestimated after reaching last January’s final at the grand old age of 57.
The betting fraternity may also be attracted to Peebles sprinter Ryan Houten in heat seven, starting off the same 8.25m mark that propelled Kelly to glory last time. “Houten could be a dark horse,” predicted promoter Hanlon, happily fully recovered from last year’s house fall which resulted in wrist and ankle injuries and a two-week stay in hospital.
“I had to organise everything in hospital and came to the race in a wheelchair, but I’m a lot better now,” said Hanlon, now 73. “Next year is the 150th running and we need somebody with enthusiasm to take over from me and stop the event from dying, but there’s nobody queueing up.”
In addition to the ten New Year Sprint heats, today also features a 200m event for youths, plus 90m and 800m finals for all age groups.