Richard Bath: Shivering at Salmond and the saltire

Alex Salmond takes the spotlight away from Andy Murray. Picture: SNS
Alex Salmond takes the spotlight away from Andy Murray. Picture: SNS
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With next week marking a year until the first Commonwealth Games on Scottish soil for over quarter of a century, I asked friends and family what they remembered about the 1986 Games at Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Stadium.

Their recollections of the Games, which featured almost 1,700 athletes from 27 nations, were hazy at best. One remembered Tom McKean’s thrilling duel with gold medallist Steve Cram in the 800m, another recalled Liz McColgan’s imperious 10,000-metre triumph, the only home track gold. None could picture Jean Hill coming agonisingly close in the pool before settling for a pair of silver medals.

Sadly, however, no one has forgotten how close politicians came to completely ruining the Games. The boycott by Caribbean and African nations in protest at Margaret Thatcher’s unwillingness to break off sporting relations with South Africa was the ostensible cause of the ructions, yet no one remembers the cause, just the effect – and that was the involvement of Robert Maxwell.

Speak to anyone older than 40 and their memories are not of a great Scottish sporting extravaganza but of the great swindler cavorting across the Meadowbank turf like the leader of some Ruritanian banana republic. Like me, they picture a portly egomaniac, interested in sport only for the profile it bestowed, stealing the limelight from competitors who had devoted their lives to their sport, for whom this should have been as good as it would ever get.

Words like embarrassing, boorish and cringeworthy don’t begin to cover this uncomfortably vivid memory, which is why it has remained lodged so resolutely in the popular consciousness. For many of us, the 1986 Commonwealth Games will always be indelibly linked with Maxwell, no matter how much we’d like to expunge him from our minds and concentrate on the derring-do of the competitors.

Which brings me to last Sunday when a Maxwell-sized shiver ran up my spine as Alex Salmond unfurled the Saltire on centre court at Wimbledon. It’s too easy to get hot and bothered over his unstatesmanlike and toe-curlingly crass behaviour, but what really did matter was the fact that he was saying “look at me” when our attention should have been reserved exclusively for Andy Murray.

By squeezing himself into the picture and by trying to politicise Murray’s triumph, he inevitably detracted from the focus on the new Wimbledon champion. By “flag-bombing” David Cameron and attempting to place himself centre-stage at one of the world’s most viewed sporting events, he was guilty of shockingly self-centred cynicism and a profound lack of respect for Murray on his day of days. Had Gerard Butler or Judy Murray waved the flag – as countless fans on Murray Mound did – it wouldn’t have mattered because it wouldn’t have been noteworthy, but Salmond knew he would become a story when he unfurled that hidden flag, which is exactly why he did it. But then the First Minister has form when it comes to inappropriate self-promotional incursions of the sporting kind. And not just a little bit of form, but bucketloads of the stuff.

Take last week. Salmond made a huge deal about not turning up for this week’s Open Championship at Muirfield in protest at the club’s “unacceptable” men-only membership policy, which sounds exactly like the highly principled stance that we’d like to see more of from our elected representatives. Only such lofty idealism soon began to unravel in the face of hard facts.

First it inconveniently emerged that Salmond attended the 2011 Open at Royal St George’s, England’s famously blokes-only club. Unless Scottish sports fans are now given a mulligan for golfing misogyny as they cross the Border, this is a simple case of rank hypocrisy. Nor is the government actually boycotting the Open, as Fergus Ewing MSP will be there. The First Minister’s real reason for not attending is because he has already attended too many sporting events this year and doesn’t want to be pictured at any more. Why not say so, instead of scoring cheap points while inciting people not to attend a great Scottish sporting event?

The answer is because Salmond is an irredeemable populist, a man who could no more pass up a microphone than Billy Bunter could ignore a sweetshop. He did, to be fair, adopt a less bombastic tone in radio interviews after Murray’s win, although he still couldn’t stop himself from overegging the pudding: he is, he insisted, a genuine tennis fan who has been at Wimbledon to see Murray play for the past ten years, even though the Scot has only played there for eight years.

Because top-level sportsmen and women are completely focused on their sport to the exclusion of all else, few are inclined to become involved in politics, leaving a vacuum and an opportunity for politicians to unilaterally co-opt popular compatriots. Despite being a formidably proud Scot, Murray is too sharp to let that happen; indeed, he gently chided Salmond for attempting to cosy him along by conspicuously referring to himself as “a British winner”.

If Murray’s shot across Salmond’s bows was a subtle one, Sir Chris Hoy gave the SNP leader both barrels in 2008 after the Beijing Olympics when he comprehensively trashed Salmond’s “ridiculous” idea that Scotland should enter future Games as a separate country rather than as part of Team GB. Apart from the obvious problem (the UN doesn’t recognise Scotland as an independent nation, so nor will the Olympics), Scotland’s greatest Olympian was clearly incensed at Salmond’s attempts to ride on the coat-tails of his hard-earned success for political gain.

Indeed, while sport can affect a government’s popularity (Harold Wilson’s surprise election loss to Edward Heath is often said to be a result of England’s quarter-final defeat in the 1970 Mexico World Cup), Salmond has completely shown a curious inability to understand that a transparent attempt to use sport for political ends is invariably counterproductive. The huge bill for the fact-finding mission to Delhi, the £500,000 spent on a 36-man delegation to the last Ryder Cup, and the £400,000 bill for running a mini Scottish embassy on Pall Mall during London 2012 made his administration look worryingly spendthrift, while his lauding of only Scots at London 2012 and his invention of the word “Scolympians” made him look petty and mean spirited.

Such is Salmond’s track record on trying to use sport that it is surely no coincidence that the independence referendum has been scheduled for after the Commonwealth Games, but before the Ryder Cup. If any Scots are playing at Gleneagles, they will do so as part of a larger, supra-national team; hardly an appealing prospect for a nationalist leader.

As George Osborne found out when he tried to get on the Olympics bandwagon, only to be roundly booed by the Paralympics crowd, wise politicians take a back seat at sporting events. Hopefully our great leader will take note, no matter what the state of the polls, because in 25 years’ time I want to be able to look back on a Glasgow 2014 and remember which Scots competitors made us proud – not which politician or paymaster hogged the limelight, as Maxwell did in 1986.