The Highland Games

As you probably already know, I competed in the Highland Games in Scotland as a professional, which meant that if you won first place, you might get $20 plus a nice bottle of Scotch. Of course, this was back in 1980, before our current depression, when $20 meant something.

We made no money back then as track and field professionals, so anything was good. Sometimes we would get various gifts – shoes, T-shirts, warm-ups, gear bags. All very nice, but guys like me wanted not only to compete for pride and honors, but also for some money, particularly if you didn’t want to have a job.

I had a job — throwing. But it was tough to make money that way.

It became a struggle to maintain your amateur status so you could compete on the U.S. national track and field circuit and go to the Olympic trials. That was the height of the throwing world.

This was the complete opposite of our free enterprise system, which tells you to use your talents and drive and make something of yourself so you can make a pile of cash. Somehow that didn’t apply to athletes, though the people who managed the athletes were paid handsomely.

We were lucky if, after an event, one of the promoters would slip us a small, plain brown envelope with $10 in it, or five pounds, or 500 lira, depending on where you were. It was as if we were getting some sort of contraband.

There was another reason for the surreptitious envelopes. The organizers didn’t want anybody to see them handing out money since there probably wasn’t enough money to go around.

One of my friends even changed his name so he could partake of the professional Highland Games and still maintain his amateur status in the U.S. He competed as J. D. Goldrick. His real name was Jim McGoldrick. He was a good buddy and we had the same birthday, June 1.

I drank a lot of his scotch. That was after I trained him to compete in the Highland Games and he went on to become a five-time world champion. As a result, he won a lot of Scotch, so I helped myself. He wasn’t much of a drinker, anyway.

He became one of my disciples in the Highland Games and was a discus thrower. He was an Olympic caliber athlete but never quite made the cut. But he was the man to beat in the Highland Games and he was the top dog for nearly 10 years. He had a 500 pound clean lift, all the way to his shoulders. So he was a bad mother.

In 1986, he invited me to compete in the Highland Games in Tempe, Arizona. This was almost at the end of my throwing career, but I went anyway. I had nothing to lose and the Highland Games are always fun. It’s like a party with these big, strong, gregarious people who are wearing kilts and drinking pints between the events and maybe a wee nip of Scotch whiskey for extra fortification and motivation. It’s a very colorful event with lots of great camaraderie.

There I was, competing for pride, pints and some good laughs and having an all-around great time when the right side of my body just started tightening up like a Burmese python had hold of my arm. I always thought the dry, desert climate of Arizona would be a preventive for that type of thing, but on this occasion it wasn’t.

The right side of my body became what the Scots would call “knackered.” I would have a wee pint of ale before the events for medicinal purposes, but even that didn’t help. I remember feeling the pain and that there wasn’t much money in what I was doing. For first place in an event, you might have won $20, 2nd place was maybe $17, somewhere in that range. With a sore right side, the prize money just added insult to injury.

Amazingly, I was winning after the first day. That included the half hundred weight for distance. Then the heavy stone, 22 pounds or more, depending on the size of the stone. Then you’d throw the telephone pole or caber, as it is known. Then you’d throw the heavy hammer. The heavy hammer weighed 22 pounds. I won that event. There were some other events, but suffice it to say I was ahead.

On the second day, you’d throw the lighter weights – a 16-pound hammer, then a quarter hundred weight for distance and so on. But my right shoulder and side were really starting to tighten up. I still had to throw the 56-pound weight over the bar for height. You have to swing the weight like a pendulum and heave it up and over. You need a limber arm and shoulder.

I threw for 16 feet. Then they asked me if I wanted to go for the world record, which was 17 feet 6 inches. Now, my right side was tightening up and I didn’t have any big throws left. I thought I might try it with my left hand, since my right was getting too stiff and sore.

There were spectators and other competitors standing around. I asked which arm I should use to break the record. They all said “Your left.” By gum, I thought, my left because I knew I would get a good shoulder roll to get the best trajectory. Just what I wanted. I wound up and let her fly. It went all the way up and skimmed over the bar and set a new world record at 17 feet, 6.5 inches. I saw their jaws drop. They thought they had picked the lesser of Brian Oldfield, but they were wrong. Not only to their chagrin, but to my amazement as well.

I instantly knew I would not have to buy any more beer that weekend. I cracked a big smile. They all thought I would fail because I threw with my left. But I had always practiced left-handed throws and exercises in the days when I couldn’t even spell ambidextrous. Now I can, of course, and that’s a personal victory, too.

The lessons here? Be ambidextrous in your throwing. And change your alias when you have to.

One more thing: I traveled among the biggest, strongest people in the world. Indestructible type people. And I became known among them and am still recognized. That is an honor and I remain humbled.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde