Hugh Reilly: David Wilkie’s a fish out of water

David Wilkie is naive to fret about the Games being ursurped by MSPs. Teaming sport and politics is not unusual, argues Hugh Reilly

David Wilkie has made quite a splash in the independence debate. Picture: Getty

Learning to swim intrigues me. For example, when I was a kid, no matter the size, age or breed of dog my friends and I playfully chucked into the Monklands canal, the mutt managed to reach terra firma by propelling its front paws like a Mississippi riverboat and thrashing its hind legs like an outlaw on the end of a hangman’s noose. Only the cur’s head was visible above the water as it swam in a style somewhat coincidentally called “the dog’s paddle”. Obviously, there is something in the genetic make-up that impels mongrels to swim in this manner; I never once saw a mangy mutt manage a breadth of the waterway doing either the front crawl or the backstroke. True, the odd hound floated, but only days after it had exhaled its last dog breath.

Kids are different. Throw a youngster into the deep end of a pool and the chances are the child will sink like a stone. I know this because I was one of those children. Even after I had troubled a bored lifeguard to rescue me and empty my chlorine-filled lungs, there appeared to be no discernible learning curve. The very next week my older “mates” tossed me into the water again – for a laugh, of course – with the same spluttering result, a quasi-waterboarding session that only stopped when a blaring siren announced the end of our colour-coded aquatic shift.

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Fortunately, David Wilkie did not have to endure the horrors of impromptu swimming lessons at Glasgow Corporation’s Townhead Public Baths. Instead of having to circumnavigate floating Elastoplasts and breathe in the foul air bubbling up from under a rather red-faced fat bloke holding on to a pool rail, Wilkie honed his amphibious skills in the open air Colombo Swimming Club in Ceylon, the country of his birth. For many, he remains Britain’s greatest-ever swimmer, winning gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

In my view, it’s a pity he is drowning, not flag-waving, when he accuses the SNP of using Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games as a “political football” to help rally support for a Yes vote in September. “They’re trying to hijack the Games,” he said. “Whenever you go to an event, politicians are always there. I went to the opening of the Commonwealth Pool last year and politicians were there. At previous Commonwealth Games, there hasn’t been such a large political presence.”

Sink me! Politicians using public events and venues to push a message? I take my bathing cap off to Mr Wilkie, for this shocking revelation of how far decision-makers will go in pursuit of popularity. Finally, I understand what a PR gaffe it was for Germany’s Chancellor, Herr Hitler, not to high-five Jesse Owens on his athletic achievements in 1936 Berlin.

I can’t believe that I have been so stupid. Jeez, my old Latin teacher, Mr Dourish, taught me that bloodthirsty Roman emperors clocked in at the Coliseum to show face to the salivating mob, lest approval ratings for a murderous autocrat dropped below the crucial tipping point of 99.9 per cent.

Truth be told, it seems Mr Wilkie is a flipper-flopper on the question of nationality. In February 2013, he whinged to a Scottish tabloid that Andy Murray’s status would alter should he win an annual prestigious tourney at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in London SW19. In a perceptive utterance that had a rubber-ring of truth about it, Wilkie observed: “Why not adopt somebody who’s very good and pretend they’re not us if they’re not good? If Murray wins Wimbledon, he won’t be Scottish or British, he’ll be English.”

In his defence, I’m sure that Scotland’s greatest-ever human exponent of the tadpole stroke would point out that he is merely swimming in the same lane as other private school-educated Scottish celebrities.

It may come as something of a psychological tsunami to Wilkie, but there is hardly a sporting venue in dear auld Alba that was not opened by either a councillor, MP, MSP or Holyrood minister; indeed, some are named after those more equal than others. We are blessed that in Drumchapel, a byword for multiple deprivation, there exists the Donald Dewar Leisure Centre, named in honour of the local MP on whose watch all three of the housing scheme’s secondary schools – along with their sporting facilities – closed in the early Nineties.

The insipid logo for this year’s games is in stark contrast to that of the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games of 1970 that had an elongated St Andrew’s banner sitting atop a jaunty thistle. Back then, these symbols of national identity did not seem to perturb London Labour’s Westminster Raj of Scotland, Secretary of State, Bruce Millan. Today, if one closes one’s eyes, one can hear Johann Lamont screech at the very idea of the country’s emblematic flower and standard being exploited by the SNP.

Wilkie’s view on the independence debate deserves to be taken as seriously as anyone else who has spent most of their adult life living outside Scotland. Sir Sean Connery is regularly castigated by Labour for the sin of supporting independence while choosing to live beyond Hadrian’s Wall. In January 2013, Jim Sheridan, Labour MP, deemed it “nauseating” that folk like Tam Connery should be able to donate. One can but assume that Sheridan, if he is being consistent, is vomiting into a bucket on hearing Wilkie spout his views on constitutional change; after all, proportionately, Connery has spent more time living in Caledonia than Wilkie, the latter opting to reside in that part of England that is forever Scotland, Surrey (as well as owning houses in London and Monaco and having spent many years paddling in Miami).

Wilkie believes “SNP politicians want the Scots competitors to win as many gold medals as possible so Scotland feels free and will vote for independence.” Using his profound logic, a cringingly shambolic performance by Team Scotland will show how much we are better together. I guess it’s sink or swim time for the Scottish people.