Brian Wilson: Politicians and sport shouldn’t mix

David Cameron and Alex Salmond cheering Andy Murray at Wimbledon last year. Picture: Getty
David Cameron and Alex Salmond cheering Andy Murray at Wimbledon last year. Picture: Getty
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BRAZIL’S president has a great lesson for any politician. At big sports events, they should all keep schtum, writes Brian Wilson

There’s an image from last year’s Wimbledon which might have been more commented upon if it had not been quickly overtaken by events. It showed the occupants of the Royal Box watching intently as Andy Murray did his stuff.

But only two of them found it necessary to be on their feet – David Cameron and Alex Salmond. This was open to two possible interpretations: (a) that they were the most zealous tennis enthusiasts in the vicinity, or (b) that they were the only ones thinking about having their status as super-fans confirmed on camera. Take your pick.

Therein lies the pitfall for politicians who try to piggy-back on the lustre of sporting personalities and events. Given how regularly it backfires, it is perhaps surprising that it still happens, but such is the lure of reflected glory. In response, the public have grown astute at providing their own message, which can be politely summarised as: “Please don’t do it.”

The World Cup in Brazil offers its own lessons for others to learn from. First, the president, Dilma Rousseff, decided that discretion was the better part of valour and, as a result, the opening ceremony was blessed with speeches from neither her nor Fifa’s egregious Sepp Blatter, in order to avoid two guaranteed shellackings.

Ms Rousseff is facing a tight race for re-election in the autumn and the last thing she needed was public humiliation. So she sat in a back seat and said nothing. Good call.

But the interesting point is that, while the crowd would undoubtedly have expressed their doubts about her leadership in vocal fashion, it is equally clear that they are fully behind the wonderfully unifying reality of the World Cup itself.

Gloomy predictions of riots and strikes overshadowing the event and bringing cities to a halt have proved alarmist and the diametric opposite of reality so far. The questions about costs and priorities may not have gone away, but they have certainly been suspended for the duration of the competition. The mood has turned decisively against those who would encourage such disruption.

Ultimately success – and any political fall-out one way or the other – is likely to be judged by the legacy left behind. Ms Rousseff has pointed out that, since the World Cup bid prevailed, 212 times as much has been spent on health and schools as on stadia and infrastructure to support the event. It may be a particularly meaningless statistic, but it summarises the case for the defence.

The benefits of the World Cup will remain after the tourists have left, insists Ms Rousseff. To some extent it cannot fail to be true and my own guess is that the pride and happiness being generated for Brazilians by hosting the World Cup, as much as the tangible leftovers, could mean that the subsequent political recriminations will be less severe than was being predicted a few short weeks ago.

So the “keep politics out of sport” message has two dimensions. The first is that politicians who seek to exploit these events do so at their own considerable risk, which is a jolly good thing. And, equally, public enthusiasm for the sheer joie de vivre which great sporting occasions bring to their doorsteps does not wish to be disturbed by extraneous distractions from any source – pro or anti.

I think it is both unfortunate and unnecessary that Scotland’s own great summer of sport, which has been in the planning for the past decade, has been forced to contend with even the potential intrusion of political overtones. The referendum could and should have been done and dusted by the autumn of last year, after a campaign lasting 18 months, which would have been enough for any sane person.

The fact it has been scheduled for this September, sandwiched between the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup, is no off-chance. We hear less of this now but, when the date was set, we were told ad nauseam that Scottish nationalism would benefit from a “feel-good factor” engendered by these events. As I recall, Bannockburn was also supposed to play a part, but that does not seem to have been a great success.

So the timing of the referendum is already an act of political manipulation which we could have done without. That is now history and the overwhelming hope must be that it is left at that. It is a pity that Jack McConnell’s plea for a suspension of referendum campaigning during the Games was not paid more heed to, but it is not too late for the spirit of that plea to be observed and indeed to be insisted upon, even if there is no formal truce.

Again, the public response will be the best deterrent to any attempt from any source to politicise these events, either overtly or covertly. And there has been no shortage of warning shots. David Wilkie has already complained of the presence of “too many politicians” at build-up set-pieces. And the attempt to drive wedges between Britain’s Olympic athletes, via Salmond’s “Scolympians” wheeze, culminated in exactly the answer it deserved – the boos of George Square.

People coming from all over the world to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games will not be remotely interested in having leaflets thrust into their hands about political events of which they know nothing and care less. Equally, the domestic audience will be only too delighted if the political faces they are normally confronted with disappear completely from their screens, whether inside or outside stadia.

Since it was first conceived of in the wake of Manchester’s successful hosting of the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow’s own strategy has been heavily focused on legacy, so that is a test which should be passed with flying colours. The decision to concentrate resources on the East End of the city has yielded facilities and infrastructure which create a great platform for continuing regeneration. Many people are entitled to take pride in what has already been achieved.

Just as the doubts of Brazil have been blown away by the reality of a gloriously cosmopolitan event which brings people together in such a wonderful, natural way, so too should Scotland’s summer of sport blow politics and politicians away, for at least a temporary period.

They should sit quietly in the back row, say nothing and even resist the temptation to be the first ones on their feet.