Aberdeen AAC’s Zoey Clark and Banchory Stonehaven AC’s Alisha Rees are two of Britain’s top sprinters – but they are only following in the footsteps of some long forgotten north-east pioneers of women’s athletics.
Clark and Rees have represented Scotland and Great Britain with distinction all over the world on a regular basis, setting records and picking up many medals along the way.
But the regular international opportunities open to these talented athletes could have only been dreamed of by women just under 90 years ago, who nevertheless achieved success.
May Ross Mackenzie, a medical student at Aberdeen University, was the first north-east athlete to compete in the Empire (now Commonwealth) Games, at London’s White City stadium in 1934. She was one of only six women selected to represent Scotland.
The Games had originally been awarded to Johannesburg, but the venue was later changed to London due to concerns over the treatment of black and Asian athletes by South African officials and fans.
Mackenzie rose to the occasion and helped Scotland win bronze in the 660 yards relay. She also ran in the 100 and 200 yards, but was eliminated after finishing fifth in the heats of both events.
The Aberdeen athlete remains the only north-east woman to have won a track medal at the Games, but she never won a national title.
Scotland international opportunities were few and far between at this time. Throughout the 1930s, there were only two representative fixtures.
In 1936, Scotland competed in their first women’s international, against England, Sweden, France and Holland at Blackpool on a Tuesday evening.
Then there was the 1938 Empire Games at Sydney, Australia, when only one woman and three men made the long journey to the southern hemisphere.
Mackenzie did, however, experience overseas competition after being extremely successful in student athletics.
She won the Scottish universities 100 yards title in 1935. That was followed by a victory in the 100 yards for a Scottish universities select team against the Northern English Universities.
Mackenzie then finished second for the British Universities in a match against the Northern Counties of England.
These performances earned her selection for the International University Games in Budapest, where she reached the final of the 100 yards, finishing sixth in 13 seconds. Polish athlete Stanislawa Walasiewicz, better known as Stella Walsh, won in 12 seconds. Walasiewicz had won Olympic gold at Los Angeles in 1932, equalling the world record of 11.9.
She was also silver medalist at Berlin in 1936.
Mackenzie also helped GB finish second in the 4×100 (50.7secs) behind Germany, 50.00.
There is no record of her competing after 1935 and it may well have been the case that she retired to concentrate on her medical career.
Sprinters made mark at first women’s event
Athletics competitions for women were seriously restricted until the 1930s and even then the number of events was limited.
The Scottish men’s track and field championships were first held in 1883, but it would be a further 38 years before an equivalent competition became available to women.
And when the first national women’s championships were held, in Glasgow on the evening of Tuesday June 16 1931, Aberdeen’s top sprinters made their mark.
Laura Greig, a student at Aberdeen University, claimed the first medal, speeding over the wet turf in 12 seconds to take the 100 yards. She became the first recipient of the RF Dalziel Trophy.
The only other north-east athletes to have won the trophy are Aberdeen AAC’s Alice Robertson in 1956 and Banchory Stonehaven AC’s Kathryn Christie in 2012 and 2014.
Greig, from Bridge of Don, completed a notable double by later winning the 100-yard hurdles in 14.4. It was a race dominated by Aberdeen University athletes, with Lilias Mackenzie and Alice Dugan occupying the remaining podium positions.
Mackenzie also picked up a silver behind Bellahouston’s May Smith in the 440 yards with Bon Accord’s Agnes Milne third.
Lilias Mackenzie was, however, the most successful Aberdeen athlete at the Scottish championships in the 1930s.
After her double silver in 1931, she went on to win a hat-trick of 80-yards titles between 1932 and 1934. She also won the 440 yards in 1933 after taking silver in 1932.
Aberdeen’s Laura Greig was one of Scotland’s top young sprinters of the late 1920s and early ’30s.
She won the 100 yards at the Scottish universities championships four times between 1928 and 1931.
Her time of 11.6 seconds at the 1930 championships was a national record. It was the first time a Scottish athlete had dipped under 12 seconds.
Greig’s Scottish record lasted until 1936 when Kilmarnock’s Elaine Wilson clocked 11.5 seconds, a performance which wasn’t matched until 1949, by another Aberdeen athlete, Quita Shivas.
Greig’s talents weren’t restricted to the 100 yards. She won the 440 yards in 1929 and regularly anchored Aberdeen to victory in the relay. She was also a good hurdler and high jumper.