Ruth Davidson: Sport can unite Scotland and help us rise to health challenge

Brian Whittle, wearing number three, crosses the finish line with Tom McKean at Meadowbank stadium in 1991. Picture: Graeme Hunter
Brian Whittle, wearing number three, crosses the finish line with Tom McKean at Meadowbank stadium in 1991. Picture: Graeme Hunter
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Exercise can reduce the risk of early death by 30 per cent so it’s one issue that should unite us all, writes Ruth Davidson.

It became known as the “quickest sock in history”. Thirty-two years ago this summer, in the European Championship’s 4x400 metre relay final, a skinny 22-year-old lad from Troon was running the third leg for Great Britain. As he began his lap of the track, grabbing the baton from team-mate Kriss Akabusi, their feet got tangled. Akabusi trod on his shoe, and ripped it off. Lesser men might have stopped there and then. Famously, Brian Whittle went on to run a personal best of 45.09 seconds, Great Britain took Gold and Brian became forever known as “one-shoe Whittle”.

This weekend, the 2018 European Championships gets underway. For the first time, the event will be split – the athletics will be hosted in Berlin while the aquatics, cycling, golf, gymnastics, rowing and triathlon is held in Glasgow. Following the success of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, it marks another opportunity for the city to market itself as one of the great events capitals of the world. The ten-day contest will continue what has been a golden summer of sport, from the World Cup, to the Open at Carnoustie.

Brian, meanwhile, is still running (at the weekend, he competed in a triathlon in New Cumnock, thankfully while keeping both shoes on). Much more than that, after being elected as a Scottish Conservative MSP for the south of Scotland two years ago, he has become one of the most passionate advocates in Scotland for better health – through both improved diet and greater physical activity. As we prepare to welcome athletes from around Europe and once again marvel at their dedication and commitment, it’s a good time to turn the attention onto ourselves, and how we can both improve health, and inspire a generation to sporting greatness.

We need no reminding of the need for action. Nor do we need telling again what the answers are: it is down to better nutrition and regular activity. The benefits of an active lifestyle are immense: the Scottish Sports Alliance has concluded that activity and sports participation can reduce risk of premature mortality by 30 per cent, heart disease by 33 per cent and type 2 diabetes by up to 40 per cent. A more active lifestyle is also known to have huge benefits for mental health. So the question is not should, but how, we do it.

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Only yesterday we learned that much of the ongoing work has had less impact than hoped. A report by researchers at Robert Gordon, Abertay and Newcastle universities found that health advice notices about the importance of eating fruit, vegetables and oil fish, while avoiding chocolate and sweets, have largely been ignored by the public for the last decade and a half. Expensive campaigns focussing on people’s bad habits have made “little progress” in changing eating habits, the report found.

As Brian likes to remind just about anybody who comes within earshot, rather than mopping up after the event, we need to do more work on prevention. This is one of the things Brian has sought to do in the two years he has been an MSP – throwing the same competitive spirit into improving health in Scotland that he brought to the athletics track. And when it comes to physical activity, he has reached some clear conclusions.

We need to get in early. Physical literacy needs a pathway in education just like learning to read, write or count, starting in nursery schools and going right through to university. It was recently reported at a Scottish PE conference that teacher trainees get as little as six hours of PE instruction as part of a four-year course. That doesn’t speak to the importance of developing children with active lifestyles.

We need to overcome barriers to participation. A third of the 2012 British Olympic Team was made up of people who went to private schools – a staggering thought, when only seven per cent of the population are privately educated. So ensuring state schools have good facilities, and that those facilities are more accessible – including during school holidays – is vital.

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We should accept that this doesn’t start with memos and strategies from central Government – but with community-led activity. The evolution of Park Runs has been one of the best new ideas in Britain in recent years. The Daily Mile – started at by headteacher Elaine Wyllie of St Ninian’s primary school in Stirling – is another simple, innovative, community-led idea which has had huge success.

Brian has also been banging the drum for community sports clubs across Scotland – which need support and encouragement from government. They include places like the Doon Valley Boxing Club and Gym in Dalmellington, Ayrshire, which not only provides physical activity for children, but also offers nutritional advice and provides space for parents to drop off their kids and then go to the gym before picking them up again.

The financial implication to the public purse in improving health can be immense; the cost for preventable ill health to the wider UK economy is estimated to be in the region of £30 billion. It is only by tackling this issue that we have any chance of ensuring the NHS copes with the rising demand it will face over the coming decades.

This is an issue where, I hope, parties can work together, to pool our expertise and knowledge for the greater good.

The aim must be that events like this week’s European Championships leave a lasting legacy, and aren’t forgotten the moment they end. We should work together so Scotland takes a stride forward towards better health – with or without a shoe.