Lesley Riddoch: Scots athletes are game-changers

Sporting superstar Usain Bolt has arrived to put an even higher gloss on the Games. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Sporting superstar Usain Bolt has arrived to put an even higher gloss on the Games. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Our Commonwealth Games heroes have made us feel like Scotland can succeed at anything, writes Lesley Riddoch

Weaving through the hills of Kintail on a long drive home from the Outer Hebrides, the radio signal all but disappeared. Amidst the blaring static, it wasn’t entirely clear what new marvel the Commonwealth Games had produced. Suddenly though, all was revealed. The sound of thousands singing Flower of Scotland came belting from both speakers. A Scot had evidently won gold – again. It could have been swimming, judo, cycling or some other sport at which Scots apparently excel. Then came the news that Scotland had equalled its previous tally of gold medals – just three days into proceedings.

Within seconds, the signal disappeared again, leaving silent hours amidst some of Europe’s most majestic scenery to ponder this astonishing reversal of Scotland’s usual fortunes. Have we under-estimated the extraordinary capacity of some people in this small country? Will Scots now aspire to being more than “gallant losers” in international competition and can the radiant success of individual sporting champions transform the outlook of a couch potato nation?

Without wishing to breathe a word of politics into this sublime moment of athletic triumph, thoughts of Scotland’s democratic race appeared unbidden.

Of course Better Together will doubtless contend that Commonwealth success proves Scotland’s elite sportsmen and women thrive inside the UK – while Yes will argue Scotland evidently punches far above its “regional” weight.

But a more subtle and powerful political point has been made with every waking moment of these Games. Scotland has finally established parity of esteem with England in the eyes of fellow champions, broadcasters, commentators and billions of onlookers across the world.

At long, long last, this is what it feels like.

Of course the headlines have been coming thick and fast – “Euan Burton wins gold as Scotland dominate judo”, “ten more medals on Day Three”, “Scots match best-ever Games gold tally”, “Huge Commonwealth flotilla on River Clyde”, “Swimming hero Ross Murdoch delighted with bronze”, “Scots continue the Goldrush”.

But the tone has changed. BBC commentators accustomed to English sporting achievement, with odd Andy Murray-like exceptions, sound different. At long, long last, in interviews, commentaries and occasional bursts of enthusiasm, there is the sound of respect.

A nation of five million sits just below a neighbour of more than 55 million in the Commonwealth medals league table. Of course, this may prove to be Scotland’s finest hour as African nations catch up in track events. And superlative achievements by Scotland’s active few don’t turn the sedentary many into sporting giants. We know all that.

And yet. Scots are holding our heads a wee bit higher this week. Scottish success has begun to seem normal and consistent.

I’d guess the same thought has been working its way around five and a half million brains since competition began in earnest – can this really be us? The folk who couldn’t build a parliament or a tram line on budget or on time; the people famed for deep-fried Mars Bars and unhealthy eating; the nation renowned for whisky, not footie? Is this really us – winners? With the added bonus of an equally winning, underdog-supporting crowd as loyal, enthusiastic and occasionally barking as the famed Tartan Army? It’s heady stuff – and no matter what happens in the remaining days, the success of last week allows some gloomy and self-restricting narratives about Scottishness to be rewritten.

Firstly, it’s clear that the national obsession with watching, analysing and poring over every tedious minute of (sometimes) third-rate football has blinded us to wider sporting achievement in Scotland. That has to change – and now that Scots are equipped with the names, faces and stories of their own sporting stars, broadcasters and public health professionals have the ideal opportunity to deliver the wider sporting coverage and involvement other northern nations take for granted. BBC Scotland sports department take note.

Secondly, just like in the Olympics, the performance by Scotland’s women athletes has been as outstanding and impressive as the men’s. There’s a fabulous video in which a local child starts running beside some elegant African female athletes in the marathon on the streets of Glasgow. He trips after 50 yards and looks on as the women stride effortlessly past. It doesn’t take a feminist to spot the inspiring power of these great role models.

Thirdly, most of Scotland’s new sporting heroes are young, working-class lads and lasses who’ve been openly emotional in their experience of success and failure. This accessibility and touching vulnerability has made a huge impact on watching Scots. It’s one thing to get a lecture about physical fitness from a well-spoken professor – it’s another to see a local lad mount the rostrum like a slightly nervous Greek Adonis.

Finally, Scotland is playing host to a genuine celebrity. The world’s fastest man and (arguably) only sporting superstar, Usain Bolt is finally in town and intends to see “the country and culture” of Scotland as well as run for Jamaica in the 4x100 metres heats and relay.

That’s big. Usain Bolt is the Elvis Presley of his day. The fanfare around his arrival has been incredible. Larbert High School proudly tweeted that “former pupil Colin Flynn was the lucky piper welcoming him to Scotland”.

The result was a wonderful picture of two confident cultures colliding at the airport when a cool, black-clad Bolt gave a thumbs up to a ginger-headed, kilt-clad young piper. “I still don’t believe it now, even after I watched him come down the stairs while I was playing. He had his shades on and hat backwards. You have to be a really cool guy to be able to pull that off.”

Actually, bagpipes are also cool – whatever Tony Blair once thought – and that marvellous airport moment happened because pipers have battled for their craft over generations as effectively as Bolt has battled for his Olympic crown.

Even the “side stories” proclaim it – Scotland has more going for it this week than it did last week. Referendum campaign groups will do with that whatever they can.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s Mallaig and Morar Highland Games has a caber ready and waiting for a famous Jamaican. It’s a long shot – but in the current fevered atmosphere anything seems possible.

And for that unexpected lift in the final lap of Scotland’s lengthy referendum race, we should all be grateful to our game-changing athletes.