The hurdles Scotland faces sending its own team to the Games strike at the heart of the independence debate, writes Eddie Barnes
TWO billion people are watching. With the scent of fireworks wafting through the night sky, the 80,000 crowd applaud as the spectacular opening ceremony comes to an end, and the first athletes of the Olympic Games walk on to the track.
Out they come, their flags fluttering on the breeze: Angola, Antigua…Greece, Grenada… Nepal, Netherlands… Saudi Arabia, Scotland… Scotland? It is Rio 2016. And the world’s newest sovereign nation, proudly headed up by the Saltire is making its way on to the track. Up above in the stands, Prime Minister Ed Miliband of the Lesser-United Kingdom claps politely and tries not to hear the whoop of joy coming from a VIP seat nearby – but it is difficult not to notice Prime Minister Alex Salmond as he hollers with excitement over the arrival of his nation on the global stage.
Fantasy? Not necessarily. The referendum on independence is now scheduled in just two years’ time. If voters say “yes”, the Scottish Government’s timetable declares that the first elections for the new independent country will be in May 2016 – a few weeks before Olympic competitors next get together.
Asked whether London 2012 would be the last Olympic Games in which Scotland competed as part of Team GB, Salmond told a press conference in Edinburgh last month: “An independent country would compete as an independent nation at the Olympics.” SNP MP Pete Wishart adds: “As an independent nation we will be represented by a Team Scotland in any future Olympics. That is what normal independent countries do in international sporting events.” It’s tight, but who knows?
This extraordinary political backdrop to the Games in London has been a running thread over the last two remarkable weeks of spectacle and drama. From the singing of Flower Of Scotland in the opening ceremony, to the sight of Edinburgh’s Sir Chris Hoy leading out Great Britain’s competitors, to the spectacle of Dunblane’s Andy Murray high-fiving London’s Laura Robson in the mixed-doubles tennis, and Glaswegian rower Kath Grainger hugging Sir Steve Redgrave after finally winning Olympic gold, the images have placed the question of Scotland’s status in the United Kingdom far more graphically than any politician’s speech.
Those in the pro-Union camp have been delighted by the spectacle, saying it shows perfectly how the UK is “better together”. In Glasgow this week, one noted, copies of the free-sheet Short List were being handed out with the headline “Thank you Great Britain” on the front page.
The pro-independence cause has hit back, insisting it is “puerile” to try to link a sporting celebration with the campaign to bring independence to Scotland. The row over the impact of London 2012 is now likely to fade. But the question of what happens next comes into view. Is this the last time that an athlete like Hoy is to be seen underneath the Union Flag at the Olympics? If so, how would it impact on Scotland’s victorious rowers, cyclists and show jumpers – and the thousands of Scots behind them who didn’t make the Games but aspire to do so?
Sport and politics don’t mix, it is said; but what’s interesting is that the answers to these questions illustrate far wider issues about Scottish independence, and the choices the country is facing.
With his six gold medals safely tucked away last week, Hoy embarked on a media tour. It wasn’t long before the question of Scotland arose. On Channel 4 News it was put to him that there may never again be Scots competing alongside others from the UK. Was he a Scottish Olympian or a British Olympian?
Hoy, who has spoken up in favour of the UK before, responded: “I’m British. I’m Scottish and I’m British, I think you can be both. They’re not mutually exclusive, but it’s frustrating because as an athlete all you want to do is race and be the best you can and not get dragged into politics. All I can say is that I’m very proud to be part of this team, to be part of the British team, to be alongside English and Welsh and guys from the Isle of Man and everybody. It’s been great and I’m proud to be part of it.”
Game, set and match, the Union? Not quite. For while the SNP has attacked London 2012 for diverting lottery funding from Scotland, it has strapped on the Union Flag itself in recent weeks to insist it too is on board with Team GB. Wishart declared it was “as much my team as the most enthusiastic Unionist from the deepest shires of southern England”. Sports minister Shona Robison has also applauded Scottish and GB success. Next month, Salmond is to host a welcome home celebration for Scotland’s medal winners at Stirling Castle just after a victory parade in London. The SNP argues it isn’t just Unionists who can claim to be both Scottish and British. But in sport, say administrators, if Scotland becomes independent, a choice will have to be made.
A newly independent Scotland would have the right to form a National Olympic Committee and then apply to the International Olympic Committee to compete on its own (it already meets the criteria for having more than five national sporting federations). Consent from the IOC would be given once Scotland was “an independent nation recognised by the international community”. The most recent nation to send in an application to join is South Sudan, which became independent in 2011. It would follow that Scotland would do the same.
Rio in 2016, says Sir Craig Reedie, Scotland’s only IOC member, and a former chairman of the British Olympic Association (BOA), would be too soon. South Sudan, independent for a year, did not compete in the London Games. Sir Craig’s influential view is that, even if Scotland were to back independence in 2014, the tortuous negotiations that are certain to follow would not be concluded in time to allow Scotland to be recognised by the international community, and thus gain a place.
After that, what would happen? The Scottish Government is throwing the issue back to the IOC this weekend, claiming it would be for Olympic chiefs to decide whether Scotland was eligible to compete. A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Eligibility for national teams in international sport is a matter for the relevant international sports governing bodies – in the case of the Olympics, this would be the International Olympic Committee.” Officials even state it could be possible, if the IOC decided it, for Scottish-resident sports stars to continue competing for Team GB. But this is dismissed out of hand by Sir Craig. “Why waste our time becoming independent? Let’s just stay British,” he says. Like South Sudan, Scotland – as an independent sovereign nation – would clearly want to take up its own position at the Olympic table, or risk derision, he says.
The problem for the SNP is that such a move immediately makes the issue extremely controversial and opens up a whole welter of questions. A separate Scots team would mean that, for example, a future Katherine Grainger living in Aberdeen would no longer have the chance to win gold alongside a future Anna Watkins, who lives in Wokingham. Who would partner Andy Murray in the mixed doubles?
Another feature of the successful Scots at the Games has been the large number who live and train south of the Border; swimming silver medallist Michael Jamieson, born and raised in Glasgow, has found success training at the University of Bath (the local papers even refer to him as “Bath’s Michael Jamieson”). Of the 12 Scots who have won medals in these Games so far, only equestrian gold medallist Scott Brash was based in Scotland.
Would Scottish-born stars actually opt to compete for a new Team England, Wales and Northern Ireland rather than the new Team Scotland, if they are dual-qualified? The examples of Peter Nicol in squash, who decided to compete for England, and hockey player Laurence Docherty, who switched to Netherlands to pursue success, are already in the open.
In other words, wouldn’t such successful Scottish-born stars, faced with a choice, stay where success has been proven? No-one disputes that one of the core reasons behind the success of Team GB has been the enormous cash injection that has gone into Olympic sport over the past decade. In the seven years running up to the Games, says Sir Craig, some £550 million of public and lottery cash has been spent (Hoy has already spoken about how lottery funding has allowed him to focus on training, rather than getting a job). Scots are plugged in to this enormous network just like anyone else. In the case of hockey, for example, the Scottish, English and Welsh bodies come together to compete as one. In the case of cycling, the British-wide governing body currently makes no distinction between a talent from Glasgow or Grimsby. It is now likely to get even more cash from UK Sport, Britain’s elite funding body, thanks to its Olympic success.
“Team GB benefits massively at the moment from funding. That comes from the Exchequer and it comes from the National Lottery and it seems to be unlikely that a much smaller unit would find it easy to match that funding”, says Sir Craig, on the choice facing Scotland. He adds: “The reality is that the top Scottish athletes benefit hugely from the funding that comes from UK Sport. Speak to Katherine Grainger, or Chris Hoy or [Scots canoeist] David Florence and they will tell you that the present situation works very well and it works to the benefit of Scottish athletes.”
The SNP insists that it would match the current set-up. No matter what happens in 2014, it says, sportscotland – the body designed to boost participation in sport in Scotland – would “ensure that high-performance athletes continue to get the best possible training”. New sports facilities in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games would give Scottish sports stars the place to do so, it also claims.
Financial support for UK Sport may also be under pressure in the coming years as the funding squeeze hits many of the Olympic disciplines. But UK Sport is still expected to be able to distribute £265m to sports bodies this December, when the next funding tranche is handed out.
For the time being, it appears Scottish hopefuls for Rio in 2016 can continue to cash in on this as normal. However, with the Scottish Government throwing the ball to the IOC on its future Olympic status, the middle-term picture remains cloudy. Ashley Howard, the chief executive of Scottish Swimming, says: “At this stage we cannot comment on whether Scottish athletes can compete in Team GB in the next Olympic Games if Scotland should become independent. The timings of the ‘what if’ scenarios are for the government to clarify.”
Britain’s Olympic success has demonstrably highlighted the integrated reality of the UK set-up. It also shows just how complex and uncertain its unravelling would be. «
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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