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Interview: A life less ordinary for Tom McNab

PUBLISHED: 10:32 21 December 2011 | UPDATED: 20:27 20 February 2013

Interview: A life less ordinary for Tom McNab

Interview: A life less ordinary for Tom McNab

People are what make St Albans a special place to live for writer, sportsman and former Olympic coach Tom McNab. Gillian Thornton went to meet him

People are what make St Albans a special place to live for writer, sportsman and former Olympic coach Tom McNab. Gillian Thornton went to meet him

Hertfordshires cathedral city may not have the same sense of community as the small villages of his native Scotland, but after nearly 40 years in St Albans, Tom McNab is convinced that the city must have one of the largest volunteer bases in Britain.

Im involved in a wide range of voluntary activities including the Herts Sports Partnership, Grove House hospice and youth sport, and Im constantly humbled by the amount of man hours and expertise that are offered by the people of St Albans and District, says Tom, who moved to the city in 1974.

A talented sportsman from his youth, Tom had represented Glasgow at football, won five Scottish Triple Jump titles, and trained in PE before becoming National Athletics Coach for Southern England in 1963 and settling in Welwyn Garden City. The following year, he took Fred Alsop to fourth in the triple jump at the Tokyo Olympic Games, the first of several significant Olympic connections.


Age doesnt matter as long as you still have energy and drive, and of course your health

By 1978, Tom had gone freelance as a writer and sports coach, and when he heard that Colin Welland was producing a film about British athletes competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics, he offered his services as technical director. A year later, Tom was helping David Puttnam to cast the actors in what was provisionally titled The Runners but which turned into the smash hit movie Chariots of Fire. Part of his role involved teaching a young Nigel Havers to clear hurdles.

The Olympic Games have cropped up throughout Toms varied career. At World and Olympic levels, he has coached track and field athletics, World Cup rugby, and even for the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics bobsleigh. So dramatic were the improvements in starting times that the GB team were the fifth fastest starters, later gaining their first World Championship medal.

I was involved in the London 2012 project right from the beginning as one of the regional members charged with raising the profile of a London Olympics. We needed to convince the IOC that Britain was behind the bid and whilst support in London and the south had always been high, it was a different story further north until we went out to convince people.

I think the construction side of London 2012 has been absolutely superb fold-up facilities that can be dismantled and used elsewhere, all completed ahead of schedule and under budget. No other country has ever done that. And I think the Hertfordshire white water facility will be one of the few elements that will make money, because the public can have a go. But youll need considerable levels of voluntary labour to persuade people to take up sport after the Games.


Im constantly humbled by the amount of man hours and expertise that are offered by the people of St Albans

Its these high levels of volunteer support that so impress Tom about St Albans, especially in the area of youth sport. Back in 1990, he set up St Albans Athletics Club, instantly drumming up 300 members with a launch meeting attended by several big sporting names. In 1995 with the club firmly established, he stepped back and left it in the capable hands of a volunteer team, and he sees the same level of voluntary commitment across many local clubs from rugby and football to hockey and tennis.

Impressively active at 77, Tom limits his coaching to young players nowadays. But he won national hammer titles at 60 and was still playing rugby for Old Albanians veterans at 66. Today hes a regular visitor to the Nuffield Health gym in Highfield Park Drive and plays twice a week at Townsend Tennis Club in the Oldies section run by Alison Asplin, another of those dedicated volunteers.

Tom lives with his wife, actress Jenny Lee, in a glorious late-19th-century flat in the centre of St Albans all high ceilings, bay windows and period stained glass, surrounded by a tree-lined garden. With easy access to the station, its perfect for a couple who frequently travel to London for work. Jenny understudied Vanessa Redgrave during the recent three-month run of Driving Miss Daisy and, the week before my visit, had stood in for the star at four well-reviewed performances.

Meanwhile Tom is hard at work on the literary side of his career. He clearly remembers the letter that scooped him a competition prize of 10 Guineas at the age of 16 from the Daily Express. But although he had sports textbooks and technical volumes to his name, Tom was 46 before his first novel, Flanagans Run, topped the bestseller lists in the UK and Europe.

In 1992, he met Jenny who was playing a role in a BBC performance of his radio play Winning, and with her encouragement, turned to writing stage plays, the most successful of which picks up that Olympic thread yet again. 1936 explores the politics and power players behind the Berlin Olympics and will form part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad in London.

As far as I know, its the only dramatic production with the Olympics as its subject, reveals Tom. Unfortunately theres no budget to stage drama and whilst Ive already raised most of the funding, I still need another 20,000. But hopefully the play will run throughout the Olympics at the Lilian Baylis theatre attached to Sadlers Wells.

1936 features legendary German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl whose iconic documentary Olympia first impressed Tom as a young man. His latest stage play, Leni-Leni, covers her long and colourful life, and was previewed in September 2010 at St Albans Trestle Theatre.

As the next big birthday looms on the horizon, Tom clearly isnt planning to take life easy. Age doesnt matter as long as you still have energy and drive, and of course your health, he says. Ill be 78 when I have my first play in the West End next year and this year, Jenny has been taking her first West End lead at 69.

And there are still so many things I want to do. Im working on a novel of 1936 but my big campaign at the moment is to bring Village Sports back to the nation. Not everyone wants to play competitive sport and there are so many fun world records that anyone could try.

Nobody, for instance, has ever broken the 11-second record for the 100-yard three-legged race set in 1906 by two Americans. Then theres raw egg throwing in pairs Local organisers could introduce whatever events they wanted a great legacy for Olympic year.

Anyone in Hertfordshire up for a challenge ?

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