Lesley Riddoch: Call ‘foul’ on football dominance

Lynsey Sharp celebrates her silver medal. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Lynsey Sharp celebrates her silver medal. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Share this article
Have your say

SADLY, after a wonderful Games, the round ball will once more take centre-stage in our unfit nation, writes Lesley Riddoch

SO farewell to the fabulous Commonwealth Games. Team Scotland broke through the psychological 50-medal barrier at the weekend, the culmination of 11 days of sporting endeavour that was theatrical in its intensity and confidence-enhancing for all involved – even couch-potato, spectating Scots.

Day after day, we could tune into Scottish, British or international TV and radio channels to discover athletes from this little country had beaten the best in the world – again.

Even Usain Bolt snapped out of his fame-isolated doldrums – inspired perhaps by the incredible 800-metre silver medallist Lynsey Sharp, whose triumph over an open wound, hospitalisation and a poor qualifying time provided a new meaning to the word tenacious and a new narrative for Scots. Perhaps we too can “Get out, be strong and commit” – as the Edinburgh lass wrote with a black marker pen on the back of her hand. Lynsey’s post-podium tweet summed up the powerful emotions circling about: “This was my everything. I love you all. Never ever give up. Always be grateful.”

“Loving everyone” is an activity normally embraced by gushing celebrities and shunned by athletic Scots. So the sincerity of that connection with spectators is hard to question. Indeed, the powerful reciprocity of feelings between the delighted, adoring crowd and the hopeful set of Scottish athletes became the story of Glasgow 2014. The crowd dared hope for success and audibly rewarded it, which in turn made it easier for Scots competitors to reach new heights of achievement.

Unlike the hype around the national football squad, where decades of hopeless belief have made little impact on the team’s lacklustre performance, this athletic feedback loop has been giddy, enlivening, immediate and fully functioning.

Which made it all the more depressing to hear the weary sound of business as usual returning to Radio Scotland sport this weekend. On Saturday, amidst skilful Commonwealth Games summarising from Richard Gordon, football reared its mundane head again. Veteran football commentator Chick Young appeared, boasting he had not watched a single live minute of the Commonwealth Games, preferring to act instead as the Games “social correspondent”, mopping up the atmosphere around the bars, streets and restaurants of the Merchant City, mocking BBC Scotland colleagues for becoming overnight experts in sports they hitherto knew nothing about (I’d call that professionalism) and announcing the “good news”: “Real sport is back – the football season started again today with Morton v Berwick Rangers.”

My heart sank, and I suspect I wasn’t alone.

Here we go back into a world where football is the only sport given prominence, air time and budget. Here we go back into a world of clichés, non-news and utterly passive viewing that inspires very little active participation. A world where “opposing” England and Scotland fans could not possibly sit side by side as they did in the Commonwealth Games arena for fear of igniting violence. A world where only men matter, women are invisible and disabled athletes are isolated or completely ignored. A boring, repetitive world with outdated values, diminishing live gates but still the lion’s share of broadcasting cash and general kudos.

Commonwealth Games-viewing Scots have had a 12-day experience of another world – do we really intend to meekly submit to wall-to-wall football again now the “season” has resumed? More people attended the Tour de France on the three days of racing in the UK than all Scotland’s football matches put together. I’d guess tens of thousands of Scots want wider sports coverage.

I suspect, though, that BBC bosses are doubtful. Once the limelight, international competition and Commonwealth showcase has gone, will Scots really want to see 13-year-old Erraid Davies thrash up and down the pool in Shetland? Will we watch in our tens of thousands to see if Lynsey Sharp’s injuries heal before her next big run? Actually – with enthusiastic promotion – I’d say we might. In other nations, sports coverage is much more varied and often more low key.

Norway plays football only in the summer – winter is reserved for sacred winter sports and for being active participants, not sedentary spectators. The whole UK recently scored “F” in the European league table of fitness. The Scots’ lack of physical fitness and mental wellbeing is literally killing us and shortening lives.

More than £40 million was spent prescribing antidepressants in Scotland last year – up more than £10m on the previous year. Meanwhile, work done by the Centre for Population Health shows the biggest reasons for early mortality in Glasgow – when the most deprived areas are compared with equally deprived parts of Liverpool and Manchester – are violence, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. It would appear Scots are in fight or flight mode – the classic responses to chronic stress.

Poverty causes stress – so too does insecurity and lack of control over life. Physical exercise is a great release. And yet compared to our Nordic neighbours, we are almost inert.

According to the most recent statistics, 82 per cent of Norwegian adults exercise regularly at least once a week, only 6 per cent never do any kind of sport and the sporting gender gap is small. An impressive 81 per cent take regular walks in the forests and mountains, 45 per cent cycle on a regular basis, 42 per cent ski, 40 per cent jog, 39 per cent do strength training, 26 per cent swim and 22 per cent do alpine sports.

In Scotland, walking for 30 minutes is considered sporting activity, and 59 per cent of Scots have done this in the previous four weeks. But only one in five has undertaken any other individual activity, with swimming the next most popular sport at 18 per cent. In other words, Scotland’s most popular sport of swimming (aside from walking) involves fewer people than one of Norway’s least popular sports – swimming. That is truly shocking.

Now of course it’s a free world, Chick Young’s a funny man, he’s entitled to his point of view and he might just have been speaking tongue in cheek.

But the reality of BBC Scotland’s sport spending suggests he’s not. BBC cash seems to pour automatically into football coverage – without any decision-making process. Yet I’d bet the Commonwealth Games has whetted the Scots appetite for a much more varied sporting diet.

It’s up to BBC Scotland to respond to the sporting success they have helped create because one thing is certain: wall-to-wall footie is totally last season.