The Highland Games were a saving grace for me during my exile from the world of sanctioned amateur athletics. I had been banished because I wanted to make a couple of bucks from throwing the shot. Imagine an American athlete wanting money to perform! The sporting authorities were shocked. I felt like Oliver asking for more porridge.
I also smoked, wore Speedo briefs, and spoke my irreverent mind. These were all strictly verboten if you wanted to compete for the AAU, TAC, NCAA or the USOC. But the Highland Games were my cup of tea. I felt a kinship with them. In another age, I might have been a bodyguard for the king and queen. Or the chieftain of a Highland Clan.
Then again, I might have been a rebel leader, fighting to oust a decadent, corrupt and unjust monarch, freeing the people from the yoke of tyranny. This I actually tried to do in various lawsuits against the United States Olympic Committee, a revolt that, in the end, indeed produced a revolution and opened the gates for professionals in the Olympics.
But I digress. Back to the Highland Games, which are prehistoric in origin, but were eventually refined and developed as modern contests during the Victorian era. They have always attracted the strongest and biggest people and now include women’s events. It’s about time. They can look good in kilts, too, something they could not even wear in the Victorian era.
In 1975 I was really strong and could toss stuff around with the best of them, so I seemed to be a natural for the Highland Games. Bill Bangert, the former champion thrower, introduced me to the games and then introduced me to George Clark, a Scotsman who was like the Johnny Weissmuller of Scotland.
I have to add a sad note here that Bangert, an amazing guy who was a great shot-putter, a boxer and an opera singer, died in July at the age of 87. He competed well into his advanced age and was an unforgettable character.
When Clark invited me to go to the Scottish Royal Highland Games in Scotland, I went. It was a beautiful place and it was a great time because we would get involved in this upstairs-downstairs action, with pints of beer and three fingers of Scotch whiskey at a setting. He was an older gentleman and we would stay at these bed-and-breakfast castles usually owned or managed by ladies, whom he often entertained. That was the upstairs part. I was the downstairs man, involved with the bar maids, chamber maids, waitresses and others. I found that a lot of the Scottish people have a certain heathen quality, including the women, something I greatly admire. I mean that in the most positive sense.
The actual games were great, too. The royal games are the real deal and are attended by Great Britain’s Royal Family — the Queen Mother, the King Father, the Prince Son and so on down the line until you get to the Duke of Earl. I figured I wanted to land that job as a palace guard until I saw the Queen Mother. That changed my mind.
The Highland Games allowed me to escape my athletic exile in the U.S. After the disintegration of the International Track Association, the professional track and field organization which paid us unhandsomely to compete, the U.S. Olympic Committee declared me persona non grata because it considered me a professional. I couldn’t even compete in all-comers meets. I remember one official said, “You’ll compete over my dead body.” I looked him in the eye and told him, “Don’t tempt me.”
The Highland Games welcomed me with open arms, no matter what the venue. My exile was a period in which I not only wore kilts and ate haggis, but boxed with Muhammad Ali, performed on ABC’s Superstars, entered the World’s Strongest Man contest and lived life rather large. As far as Ali goes, I didn’t think his sting was so big, but that’s another story.
I won the U.S. championship at the Highland Games in Santa Rosa in 1977. I did the caber toss, the 56 pound weight for distance and for height, and the 28 pound weight for distance.
Since then, the Highland Games have taken root in the U.S. and there are dozens of them ranging from Hawaii to Rhode Island to Mississippi, where, rather than haggis, they serve grits. California has 17 festivals alone.
Throwers get paid big money to go compete in the royal games in Scotland now. I have heard some get as much as $60,000. I only got beer and haggis. Don’t get me wrong, it was good beer and haggis, but a pile of cash would have made them even better. That and a bunch of pictures of the Queen suitable for framing.
I did very well in Scotland, too, setting some records. The last games I competed in were in Santa Rosa in 1985 and I tore the bicep in my right arm throwing the 56 pound weight for distance. I was winding up and a photographer crept too close and I pulled the weight in. I knew it was my last throw, however, so I let it fly and tore the muscle from its attachment.
I thought my throwing was over. But I iced it up and the next day I came back and threw the 56 pound weight for height. Left handed.
I went on to the 1986 Highland Games in Tempe, Ariz., and set a world record for height with the 56 pound weight with my left arm. I didn’t have to buy any beer or haggis that day.
I would like to dedicate that throw posthumously to Bill Bangert, the wild man who could throw with the best of them and who started me on the path to the Highland Games when I was but a wee laddie.
By Brian Oldfield with George Houde
(this blog was originally posted on 8/19/2011)