07 October 2019

Exclusive: Liz McColgan reveals the pressures she, and now daughter Eilish, have faced as top female athletes

As the runners in the women's 5000m final circled the track at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on Saturday evening, one face in the crowd stood out. And, quite likely, one voice - both belonging to World Champion and Olympic medalist Liz McColgan.

She was watching while wearing two hats, as mother and coach of 28-year-old Eilish, already a European Championship silver medalist, but now on the world stage competing against the very best.

And she didn't disappoint. Despite not medalling, McColgan junior recorded a personal best in a strong field, and so the train is still firmly on the track and heading for Tokyo next year.

Ahead of the race, Liz had spoken exclusively to NewsChain about Eilish's prospects, her own career and the very similar challenges they have faced as professional athletes.

“It’s extremely difficult to medal in these events because of the African domination.

“We’re just looking for a good race from her and try and get a PB because she’s in great shape. It’s the last big opportunity so we’re aiming for the top eight, but anything on top of that is the icing on the cake.”

Eilish set a PB in the heat of Doha (PA Images)

That she described Eilish as being in "great shape" was particularly pertinent given a totally different challenge her daughter faced only last month. 

Eilish fell victim to the body shamers and suffered a torrent of online abuse about being 'too skinny'. She pulled no punches in her response.

She said: "Nothing pisses me off more than someone making a comment that I'm 'too skinny'. I'm naturally small, always have been. Some people are just slim.

"I doubt they would comment on someone slightly larger than 'average'. I'm a healthy athlete and human. Go body shame elsewhere!

"It's no surprise that young girls feel the need to get boob jobs, big plastic arses and contour themselves down to their kneecaps to fit what's deemed the 'ideal' body.

"If you're healthy and happy then don't worry about anyone else's opinion. It's your fabulous body."

Eilish said athletes like her were denied lucrative advertising contracts because people perceived them to be too thin.

"We wonder why sports brands don't use professional athletes in their campaigns.. because folk then moan that we're 'too skinny'. Most brands then go sign up Kylie Jenner instead.

"Who's to say what a runners body should look like? People love to judge whilst sitting from the comfort of their sofas."

Liz supported her daughter’s outburst and called for a change saying: “I think it doesn’t just happen a lot in our sport, it happens in all sports to a lot of women and to women everywhere.

“We need to get rid of the “what is the ideal” perception of a sporting body and what is ideal for performance. And it’s all individual,” she said.

But how do you bring about change?

“I think a lot of people like Eilish who address the issue are showing people and speaking out and telling them to stop the bullying and the negative comments about what a person looks like. Why not comment on their performance instead of what they look like.”

She added that role models like Serena Williams were important because they are “stepping up and saying let’s stop this happening and be more positive of body shape and be more natural.

“It’s all about education,” she added. “Coaches need to be educated. When I was younger I had a coach tell me I was too heavy and needed to lose weight. These kinds of comments can really stick and turn someone’s head a thousand times more than they think.

“More education needs to go into coaches and how to balance what they are saying and what they are trying to get across so that they’re not saying the wrong things.”

Liz herself has been on the receiving end of unwanted comments.

Liz with newborn Eilish and her gold medal in 1991 (PA Images)

“It was really difficult when I was pregnant,” she said. “You had no context or information about running and pregnancy. I would ask the doctor and they would just say 'oh, you’re still running? Well just stop when you think you need to'.

“So I didn't know if I was doing the right thing - I was just going along with what I felt like and then when I had the baby there was very little support."

At the time, the expectant mother was sponsored by Nike, who, until a recent campaign spearheaded by Allyson Felix after she was dropped by them, had strict rules around pregnancy and sponsorship.

For McColgan there was no support from the sponsorship giants. “I was sponsored by Nike at the time and they dropped me as soon as they found out I was pregnant so I had no income at all when they did that,” she said, then added: “They’ve only just changed it now because of Allyson Felix who led the big campaign about it.

“But yeah I just got dropped completely,” she said.

Determined to prove a point, McColgan fought back into form after having Eilish - by winning the 10,000m gold in the World Championships.

“For me, getting back to it was all about proving people wrong,” she said. “I was dropped and no one believed in me.

“It was really difficult but I’m really pleased that now people can be seen to come back,” she added.

“Women shouldn’t be made to feel like it’s the wrong thing to do to have a family. I don’t think that just because they want a family they should be hampered,” she added.

“It was very tough to go through but at the end of the day I got back quickly and had success and paved the way for other people to be like 'yeah you can have a baby and come back'."

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