Among all of this year’s nominees for rector, Graeme Obree is probably the most unlikely. An athlete with a tumultuous past and little formal education, some might question his qualifications for the role. During our conversation, Obree profusely explained that while he might not be the traditional choice, his life experiences offer a different type of qualification. His unique history is behind the nomination by GUSA and GLGBTQ+, who value his contribution to sport, both as an innovator and as an openly gay athlete. Nicknamed The Flying Scotsman, Obree broke the world hour record twice and was the world champion for individual pursuit in the early 1990s.
When asked what students should know about him, Obree named his reputation as an innovator in sport, his world records in cycling, and his struggle with depression. “[I’m] someone who has had massive life problems. I ended up in mental institutions until about five or six years ago, and I’ve overcome personal issues.”
Indeed, both physically and emotionally, Obree has faced many uphill battles. While the fight may not be over yet, the father of two says he has learned a lot from his experiences. “I’m very aware of my vulnerabilities, so that’s part of my lifestyle. I’m like a plane that’s got altitude, and I’ve got to maintain that altitude, otherwise I’ll hit the treetops.” If there’s one thing he can offer, it’s advice to students who are struggling with mental health issues. Speaking of his attempted suicide, Obree said, “I was dead, last rites and everything. And I was brought back. … So I’m qualified through this journey for people to feel that I get where they’re coming from. And also I can give advice to people out there who don’t know what to do about it.”
Far from being intimidated by the other rector nominees, Obree has a very casual attitude towards the upcoming elections. “What I’m doing is putting forward my life experience as what I have to offer, along with other people doing the same thing. And the students decide which. It’s not a case of acceptance or rejection, it’s a case of deciding what’s most suitable,” he explained.
Little seems to intimidate the cheerful athlete, who now speaks at schools and has written an autobiography titled The Flying Scotsman. If there’s one thing that worries him about the rectorship, it’s his lack of academic background. “What I bring to the job is not academic at all,” he said. “What I have is this life experience, and that’s actually all I have. I can give them the benefit of my experience and the situations that I’ve lived through, the journey that I’ve been on. People can take from that. That’s all I have to offer.”
Obree also offered his perspective on the upcoming referendum, stating, “I can see both arguments. … But I feel Scottish enough as I am right now. And most Scottish people feel Scottish enough in their identity. So if it’s not an identity issue, it’s an economic one. If it’s an economic issue, that doesn’t interest me. So I wouldn’t say yes or no either way.”
While open and at ease in a one-on-one discussion with me in the lounge of the Stevenson Building, Obree was in his element at a Q&A session attended by several dozen students. During the discussion, he voiced his support for the expansion of the university’s counselling services. “If there’s an underdeveloped counselling service then we need to consider that this is an important thing. If a student falls to the wayside, then that’s such a waste. It would be my job to convince the powers that be that this is a worthwhile investment.” He also encouraged GUSA’s efforts to keep Wednesday afternoons free of classes to allow for the scheduling of matches. “I have spoken about this on Radio Scotland, of the woeful neglect of sport in people’s life. I can’t imagine a life without exercise! This is about a healthy lifestyle, so yes, I’m for that.”
Obree also delved into his short stint at Glasgow: “I was at this university in 1989. I studied product design engineering along with the school of art, which is twenty-eight lectures a week. It was a life shock for me to come here.” While life as a student didn’t suit him, Obree showed a real interest in interacting with students. “If I can contribute in some positive way to young people, then yes, I’ll volunteer my time for that. … I want to be there for the most vulnerable people, and for all the students.”
Should the election results not end in his favour, Obree will not be idle, planning a bike trip with son, writing a survivor’s guide to depression, and continuing his public speaking events. At the close of the Q&A session, Obree joked, “Sooner or later people will know that I’m winging it.” Winging it or not, this candidate approached his nomination with a very pragmatic and humble attitude. “There might actually be a better candidate than me. If that’s the case, then there’d be no hard feelings at all. You’re choosing someone who’s life experiences and what they have to contribute suits better your needs.”
Should he be elected rector however, Obree is very positive about the effect he can have on student life at Glasgow. “I certainly hope to have a sense of real involvement… From my point of view, it would be nice to part of something like this.”
Interview/Words by Emma Meldrum