Commonwealth Games: Margaret Johnston: Bowls: The mistress of the end-game

BY THE age of 55, most sports players have long since joined the gerontocracy and lapsed into "it weren't like this in my day" mode. Margaret Johnston, five times a world champion, is a shining exception to this rule.

High in this feisty grandmother's seemingly endless list of achievements during nearly 35 years of competition is the Commonwealth Games singles gold medal which she won for Northern Ireland four years ago in Canada. She is relishing her defence of the title, but there is also a touch of apprehension, not about the competition, but the conditions.

"Of all the sports, bowls requires the competitors to be out in the open for the longest period," she said. "A fours match can take up to four hours to complete. Coming from Ireland, I'm not exactly used to heat. The hottest I've ever bowled in was 40 degrees Centigrade in Australia, but the thing about Malaysia is the humidity. I don't like hats but I'm going to have to wear a visor. Perhaps I'll do what one of the Australian girls does and put a damp cloth on my head. I've also spent a fortune on sun blocks and creams. There's no doubt you've got to be really fit for this.

"I'm told that the greens out in Malaysia are going to be very fast which means that we will be aiming straighter than we would normally here at home. Fortunately for me, I'll have almost two weeks to acclimatise because we all go out there at the end of this month and the ladies' singles is the last event in the programme." Her main rivals are likely to be Scotland's Julie Forrest, Carmen Anderson from Norfolk Island, New Zealand's Millie Khan ("she's even older than me") and the South African Lesley Hartwell. "In my experience, though, the ones you're not expecting too much trouble with are often the toughest to beat," she said, aware that as defending champion hers will be the most coveted scalp of all.

Her love of bowls has not wavered since she first encountered the "short mat" version of the sport at her local church hall in County Londonderry in 1964. "The minister started up a group of us and I seemed to have the knack straight away. I'd been good at other sports like hockey and netball at school which probably helped."

She soon graduated to the real thing but has only become an international force in the past 15 years. In addition to her Commonwealth crown, her roll call includes a pairs gold medal at Edinburgh in 1986, a singles bronze in Auckland four years later, three world outdoor pairs and two world indoor singles titles, plus a string of Irish championships.

But despite such consistent success, her life away from bowls has been far from easy. Apart from the obvious difficulties of living through the Troubles ("As a sports person you can't get involved. You keep your nose clean and your mouth shut"), she has been unemployed for the last three years since being made redundant from her job as an auxiliary at a private nursing home.

"Money is tight. I'm divorced and I've got no sponsor. There's only a small amount of Lottery funding, but it doesn't cover my main expense, which is travelling," said Margaret, who has two sons, a daughter and four grandchildren. "The club I play at in Ballymoney is 22 miles away and Belfast is a round trip of more than 100 miles. In addition, we pay all our expenses when we compete internationally and you also have to buy your own uniform. They tried to get some money out of us to go Malaysia but we told them that if that was going to be the case we wouldn't go."

This is not the only dictum which the team management, clearly more at home issuing instructions to callow teenagers, will struggle to enforce. "Because of the heat, we've been told not to drink any alcohol at all while we're out there," said Margaret with a chuckle. "I'm not sure whether I'll be sticking to that, though." After all, things like alcohol bans never happened in her day.