Sitting across from 95-year-old Andy in his Dundee home, I can’t help but feel a little like a young Chris Hoy myself. Twenty-eight years on and his revelations bring the hairs on my neck to attention. He smiles often, trailing his words poetically like a vintage Billy Connolly in full flow.
You see, Andy could have been a contender. He most likely would have appeared in an Olympics himself, but the outbreak of war all but ended his dream. In fact, had he not suffered such horror in Japan’s PoW camps, he may have even made it to London for the 1948 Games.
In 1940, the world record holder for the mile, a young Londoner called Sydney Wooderson, travelled to Glasgow to race in the Ibrox Mile against some of the best runners in Britain, including Andy. Conscripted into the Lanarkshire Yeomanry, Private Coogan was supposed to be confined to Redford Barracks in Edinburgh at the time, but he absconded, took his place in the race and ran Wooderson close, eventually finishing second.
“I hadn’t done any training, because I was too busy on hills waiting for German paratroopers to come,” he says.
“The invitation to run was sent to my regiment. On the day I went to collect my pass, the office was closed. There was no way I could leave without a pass, so I went up through the back roads, through the fields and hedges.”
Andy hitchhiked the 50 miles from Edinburgh to Glasgow and was picked up by a man heading to watch the race, along with 80,000 others. After Andy came second on the track on Saturday, he embarked on another race – this time to get back to the barracks before his commanding officers noticed he had gone AWOL.
“If you could get back for the first parade at ten o clock, you were never missed. On the Sunday morning this officer said, “Come here you… You are on a charge, you were out of bounds.” I said, “I have been here all the time.” He said, “Wait a minute,” and he got out his newspaper and there it was a photograph of me running in the race.”
Andy's running ability had been his undoing, but the picture, which was published in The Glasgow Herald, would stay in his possession from that moment on. He even carried it while he was a PoW and, on one unforgettable occasion, it helped him survive.
“It was in one of the last camps, a place called Heito,” he says. “I worked in the coal mine for the first few days. We all had to line up and put our stuff in front of us. The head Japanese officer, looking through my stuff, came to the photo and started pointing at it.”
At this stage, Andy explains in Japanese what was said, as his captor pointed to the newspaper clipping and asked whether or not the man pictured was, in fact, ‘number 808’.
“I didn’t have a name; that was my number. The officer stood back a while and looked at me. I was skin and bone. I bent down to repack my stuff and he started to put it back in for me, nice and gentle. He took the picture in his hand and said, ‘War is very bad.’”
It was a rare moment of connection in a brutal imprisonment. That Andy survived for three and a half years in captivity – at Heito, he was forced to dig his own grave on two occasions, and was being held only 20 miles from Nagasaki when the second atomic bomb was dropped in 1945 – was thanks to a special friendship and a sporting phrase that saw him through the darkest times.
“I was introduced to this priest called Father Richard Kennedy. He looked after me when I had dengue fever [a mosquito-borne viral infection], and I looked after him when he had it.
“I went right down to a bag of bones. There was a platform, where we slept, and a partition; if you got to that partition [the more sick you were, the closer you slept to it] you knew it was curtains, because on the other side there were boxes.
“I was really bad, and Father Kennedy would come up and say, ‘You have a lap to go, you’ll make it, you’ve a lap to go. He kept on saying that to me. That inspired me to do my best. Nobody would believe what that camp was like.”
Andy’s battle was far greater than any one played out around a track, but war was, and is, not only a bringer of untold personal pain and destruction, it is also a taker of dreams.
It may have been his fitness and competitor’s instinct that saved him, but when Andy returned to Glasgow in 1945 he weighed around six and a half stone and was in no state to run competitively. In fact, he was never able to compete at the highest level again, although he did return to training and running, mainly for the sheer love of the sport.
He married Myra his wife of 65 years and had three children, Andy, Christine and Jean. He worked as a painter and decorator, although he continued to train children at his local Tayside Amateur Athletic Club in Carnoustie, where he has lived since returning from the war. He does not offer up so much as a word of resentment.
“I was getting better and better all the time,” he says, recalling his pre-war running career. “Before the war I had won the Hampden mile, the Partick Thistle mile. But these things happen. They happened to many people.”
For Chris Hoy, Andy remains a constant source of inspiration and, perhaps more importantly, a permanent reminder to remain humble throughout his remarkable career, which has brought with it fame, money and four Olympic gold medals.
“Andy could easily have achieved what I have, but it was taken away from him,” Chris has said. “Most people would be obsessed with the ‘what ifs’. But he has never shown any resentment. Instead, he devoted his life to coaching others.”