Richard Bath

SCOTS were fired up by the Olympic flame, but does that tell the whole story of our attitude to the Games?

AT HALF past five on Wednesday morning, while their unsuspecting parents slept upstairs in their farmhouse, ten-year-old Mattie Forrest and his brother Christopher, 7, crept downstairs and made themselves breakfast. Twenty minutes later, dressed for school and unable to contain themselves any longer, the two young Fifers dragged their parents from their slumbers and embarked on an adventure they had been looking forward to for months. It wasn’t Christmas – the Olympic torch was in town.

Less than four hours later, as the torch was carried around St Andrews by a selection of local celebrities and people whose good deeds had temporarily elevated them to that status, the Forrest family were there to see an event which is unlikely to happen again in their town in their lifetimes. Nor were they alone. In the Auld Toun, the lines of cheering spectators were three deep, and on the West Sands, 240 pupils and 25 staff from Madras College re-enacted the famous scene from Chariots Of Fire.

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“We had a great time, lots of my school friends were going so I wanted to go too,” says Mattie. “Two of my friends were piping, so we went to the town centre to see them and see the torch go past. There were lots of people there and it has made me really look forward to the Olympics – I like all sorts of sports and I really want to see Usain Bolt win. I’m going to watch it on telly with my dad.”

Mattie is not alone. Over the past week a curious thing has happened to Scotland. Until now, apart from a carping annoyance about the cost of the Games, most Britons north of the Border seem to have been generally immune to charms of the Olympics, avoiding the hysteria that is increasingly pervasive the nearer you get to London. Yet the slow progress of the torch around these climes has revealed a previously undreamed of level of interest in the Games. So, is Scotland finally learning to love the Olympics?

The figures would certainly suggest so. In its seven-day tour of Scotland, during which Scots ranging in age from 11 to 100 carried the torch, the total crowd witnessing its progress came to almost 450,000, with over 50,000 watching it in Edinburgh alone. More than 2,000 Scots have applied to be volunteer stewards at the Games in London.

Towns and villages across Scotland got into the swing of things, and there were even some gatecrashers: when the townspeople of Hawick in the Borders found they weren’t on the torch route, they held their own ceremony. The Terries spent 50 hours fashioning their own torch from a Maglite, which was renamed “Oor Ain Torch of Hawick” and marked with a brass stamp, depicting the town’s horse memorial. Thousands turned out for the town’s alternative event, including four-times silver medal-winning three-day Olympic eventer Ian Stark.

Such was the interest in the relay that towns lobbied hard to be included on the route. The North East Fife MP, Sir Menzies Campbell, who captained the 1964 GB team to the Tokyo Olympics when the sprinter was known as the fastest white man in the world, campaigned for St Andrews to be included on the final route.

“The sight of the torch going along the West Sands where the iconic opening scenes from Chariots Of Fire were shot made a wonderful backdrop for the relay,” he said. “And where better to bring it than the home of golf, which is to be included in the Olympics for the first time in 2016?”

It is all part of Scotland’s highly collaborative society, says Henry Maitles, Professor of Education at the University of the West of Scotland. Citizenship north of the Border is “all-pervasive – it’s not just something that you learn about, it’s something that you live”. He contends that the recent National Foundation for Educational Research survey of 18 to 25-year-olds shows that Scots give more to charity, are more likely to belong to a political party, feel part of Europe, trust their family or other people the same age, and feel part of their local town and country than their English counterparts. So when there’s a community activity, Scots are more likely to put their misgivings to one side and join in.

That is certainly the experience of Michael Scotchmer, an Englishman who moved to the Borders many years ago but who attracted a good deal of attention by turning up at the torch relay in his village of Gordon with an original torch from the 1948 London Olympics (a present from his aunt, which has been used as an electric lamp for the past 64 years). “The torch relay was amazing, I had no idea it would be this big,” he said. “But then this is a pretty good little community and if something’s going on people try to support it – everyone’s certainly very excited and enthused about the Olympics.”

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That was a theme enthusiastically embraced by Allan Wells, the 60-year-old Edinburgh-born sprinter who won 100m Olympic gold and 200m silver in 1980. Now based in Surrey, Wells carried the torch three times in Scotland last week, and is well placed to judge the popularity of the Games in Scotland as compared with England. He hasn’t been surprised by the degree of support he’s found during the relay.

“The people who got near to the torch really rallied to its spirit because the Olympic torch is such an iconic thing,” he said. “In Selkirk, the scene in the high street was incredible, and in Penicuik the place was pandemonium. As for those people who got to carry it, many found it to be an overwhelming experience; one woman I met collapsed in tears on the bus.

“In my experience, there’s been an incredible sense of excitement [in Scotland], but that hasn’t surprised me because the Olympics and the torch have a magnetic quality that draws everyone in. It’s absolutely the same in England, too, and I don’t sense any great divide. This is a Team GB with Chris Hoy at its forefront and which contains a lot of Scots, so I’d expect people to get behind it.

“And while there are undertones of politics – the football’s tricky, but I bet those games at Hampden will be sold out – we need to have an eye to what’s going to happen in two years’ time with the Commonwealth Games. The term ‘legacy’ gets on my tattie, but as well as all the facilities, there will also hopefully be a legacy of goodwill: Scotland will play a full part in these Games and when it comes to 2014 and the spotlight is on Glasgow and Scotland, the favour will be returned.”

Politics are never far from the surface in Scotland, and the shadow of 2014 lurks in the background when talking about the Olympics, as the ceaseless row over the inclusion of Scottish players in the GB football team has demonstrated. That year – the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn – will witness the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the Gathering of the Clans in Stirling, the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and a referendum on independence. If this year has a British theme with the Queen’s diamond jubilee (for which there was a notable lack of enthusiasm compared with south of the Border) and the Olympics, 2014 will be a year when the differences between Scotland and England will be picked over and accentuated. For Alex Salmond, there’s little to be gained playing politics with a Games which may well absorb the nation when it starts on 27 July. Plenty of time for that later.

The naysayers believe that the Games’ £27m opening ceremony will give the lie to any idea that this is a truly “British” Games. Danny Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” extravaganza is supposed to evoke the countryside of these islands, with a farmer ploughing a field, sheep grazing in a paddock and a huge oak in a meadow. Yet the iconic Scottish countryside is one of hill and glen rather than Cotswold kitsch. Many Scots were bemused last week when it was revealed the ceremony would include people dancing around a thistle-shaped maypole. It seems the profoundly effete hanky-waving fertility ritual known as Morris dancing may well be Scotland’s only cultural input into the opening ceremony – SNP MSP Rob Gibson insists it was a common practice in many pre-Reformation Celtic countries. Four years ago, at the Beijing closing ceremony, London mayor Boris Johnson’s comic cameo used London black cabs and double-deck buses to give an insight into what we can expect at these Games.

Sceptics admit that concerns about the commercialisation of the torch relay – torches bought for £199 are for sale on Ebay for £20,000, while many found the presence of Samsung, Coca-Cola and Bank of Scotland trucks dispensing freebies distasteful – are shared in England. But they still question whether Scotland will embrace the Games.

One Olympics insider I spoke to was concerned that the low number of street parties and events to celebrate the Jubilee in Scotland pointed to a lack of empathy with British events, citing the “disastrous” ticket sales for the football in Glasgow and suggesting that business at the Olympic concessions in John Lewis has been slow. While competing teams will be billeted all over England, helping a sense of inclusion, Scotland will have just 25 competitors from Namibia and Zambia.

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Alternatively, those naysayers may be well wide of the mark, with their cynicism washed away on a tide of enthusiasm given force by a tsunami of medals for Sir Chris Hoy and his fellow Scots. But whether Scotland has genuinely taken to the Olympics will only become clear in six weeks’ time when the battle moves at last on to London’s tracks and fields.