Richard Bath: No male Olympians because sport in schools is up the spout
I STILL remember my first experience of school sports day as a parent.
At our school in a small Ayrshire village, the day’s action consisted of a thing called “potted sports” which was a non-competitive farce of a day attended only by those pupils who were competing, if that’s the right word. My ultra-competitive youngest son finished first in the sprint and proudly announced the fact that he had won to his teacher, only to be told there were no winners.
At the risk of sounding like a nostalgic old fart, it was a far cry from my generation, where school sports day was extremely competitive. It was a big thing, with every pupil in school forced to attend and kudos bestowed on those who were selected to compete, let alone those who won.
I thought for many years that the point of sport was as much in teaching kids how to lose as to win, but this sort of individual sport was also about winning for the sake of winning. For some competitors, winning is the point, not the enjoyment of the sport. A friend of mine competed for Scotland at the Commonwealth Games in a sport he didn’t particularly enjoy but which he was good at: it was the winning he was addicted to, not the sport through which he achieved that high.
All of which is a long-winded way of making the point that one of the key reasons Scotland has ended up with no male track and field athletes competing at an Olympics for the first time in more than half a century is because sport in our schools is still up the spout. It started in the Eighties but continues today. I did an entirely unscientific straw poll of a dozen kids I know who are just about to leave school or who have recently done so, and the majority had never experienced any form of regular organised sport at school.
This is a long-term and systemic problem. At the last Olympics the only Scottish male athlete was 3,000m runner Andrew Lemoncello, while only Allan Wells in 1980 and 5,000m runner Ian Stewart in 1952 have won individual Olympic medals since the war. Had sprinter Chris Baillie not been injured, or had 22-year-old US-based 1500m runner Chris O’Hare or 21-year-old 800m runner Guy Learmonth progressed slightly faster, then Scotland would have had its usual Olympic representation and the cracks would have been papered over once again.
Compared to England, where the Coe-Ovett rivalry and the presence of post-war athletes such as Linford Christie, Steve Cram, Brendan Foster, David Moorcroft and Roger Bannister has provided plenty to fuel young imaginations and drag kids into athletics clubs, Scotland has been relatively bereft of role models. After a true Scottish role model came along in the form of 100m gold medallist Allan Wells, Scotland quickly produced a raft of notable sprinters such as Olympic relay silver medallist Elliot Bunney, World Championship gold medallist Brian Whittle, European silver medallist Cameron Sharp and that great lost talent, European 200m champion Dougie Walker. Nor is the situation much better for Scotland’s women, although the longevity of Yvonne Murray and Liz McColgan has done much to give the impression that our women are ahead of the men, as has to a lesser extent that of Lee McConnell, who will next month match McColgan’s record by competing in her third successive Olympics.
The presence of four Scottish women athletes in London would also seem to confirm that, yet two of them also give an insight into a syndrome which is becoming increasingly common, which is one where the children of parents who played a sport at the top level follow them into that sport and are coached by their parents. It’s happening in women’s athletics, where Lynsey Sharp (the daughter of Cameron Sharp) and Eilish McColgan (daughter of Liz) will compete in London, but it’s also happening across the sports at this Olympics, with basketballer Robert Archibald, canoeist David Florence, shooter Jen McIntosh, swimmer Hannah Miley, tennis’s Murray brothers and several more. Genes play a big part, of course, but all were introduced to their respective sports largely because their parents played and/or coached it.
The bottom line is that, far from being under-represented in Team GB, with 53 participants in a team of 542 athletes Scotland is actually punching above its weight. The issue is simply that we’re just not doing so in the discipline of track and field, which children used to first encounter at school. Instead, there is an increasing reliance on niche sports such as handball and a few dynasties to produce world-class Scottish talent.
According to Brian Whittle, who now coaches the next generation, this just isn’t sufficient for the needs of Scottish athletics. If the Commonwealth Games took place tomorrow, he says, Scotland would only have 26 athletes who would make the qualification requirement out a total possible of 120 athletes. That means that of the 40 events at the Commonwealth Games, 21 would not currently have Scottish representation. When it comes to athletics, forget London – it’s Glasgow in two years’ time that we should be really worried about.
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