When he pulls down his visor in the London Velodrome, Chris Hoy’s mind and body will focus on one thing: winning. “The moment you put the helmet on and your shoes on, all you are thinking about and visualising is your game plan,” he says. “You switch on the mind-set that this is the moment now, and everything has been leading towards this moment. You tell yourself, ‘I am not going to make a mistake, I am going to run the race I want to’.”
It is this single-minded determination that has made Chris Hoy – Team GB’s flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony – Britain’s greatest-ever track cyclist. At 36, this will almost certainly be his last shot at glory, a Games in which he could equal Steve Redgrave’s record of five Olympic golds. If he manages to make that mark, it will be a fitting climax to a career that has brought success on the track, honours and riches off it.
But the origins of Chris’s will to succeed lie far beyond the Olympic Velodrome in the pages of a school exercise book and a meeting with an old soldier who inspired him with tales of winning and losing, survival and courage, hope and fear.
As an eight-year-old, growing up in the west end of Edinburgh, young Chris was given the task of writing a school project on the Second World War. He bounded up to see his great-uncle Andy Coogan, who had fought in the Far East, been captured by the Japanese and held in hellish prisoner of war camps for nearly four years.
Before the outbreak of war, Andy had built a reputation as one of Scotland’s brightest athletes and, by 1940, was taking on the best in the world over a mile. But his career was cut short by the war. After being posted to India, he fought in the Malayan campaign and was taken prisoner by the Japanese in Singapore in 1941, when he was only 24. Put to work in the Kinkasaki copper mines and on the railways in Formosa, now Taiwan, he somehow survived to tell the tale.
For his school project, Chris was told stories that have stayed with him ever since. Not only about the war, but also about athletics. So much so that he nominated his great-uncle to carry the Olympic torch in Dundee last month.
“My dad took me up to his house. I arrived with tape recorder in hand. He hadn’t really talked about what had gone on when he was a prisoner of war. I remember, even at that age, being blown away by his stories. I just remember thinking that this man has seen such horrendous things, yet he didn’t seem negative about it or bitter. He was so full of life, so full of energy, and so keen to pass on his enthusiasm for sport. To this day, he still is. He really is a one-off.”
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.”
And that’s why Chris asked for his hero to carry the flame in Dundee in June, finally, 67 years after the end of the Second World War, to write his name into Olympic history.
Not that Andy thinks he particularly deserves such an honour. “I think about all the people I feel should be carrying that torch,” he says. “They were just being polite letting me do it.”
For his part, Chris continues to beam with pride when talking about his great-uncle. But even as he races towards 100 years old, Andy still has some advice for his great-nephew.
“Everybody respects you. Always remember that every person you beat has tried just as hard as you have. Always remember you have to be very humble,” he says. “Chris is not big-headed or anything like that. He never was.”
Chris has acknowledged the difference between the opportunities he has enjoyed and those that faced Andy. “These were young men in their prime running for the sheer joy of competing. The stories really bring it home to me. In another age, I would not have had the chances I have had.”
As Chris heads into London 2012 seeking at least a fifth gold medal, one that will put him on a par with Britain’s greatest Olympian, great-uncle Andy will, as always, be cheering him on from home. “I took him one day to Meadowbank to train with me. We ran over 50 yards and this thing whizzed passed me. That was Christopher at ten years old. He beat me! I didn’t speak to him for a while after that,” he says with a wink.
Chris Hoy competes in the Men’s Keirin Finals at 5:57pm, BBC2, BBC Olympics 3