2014: A sports odyssey (for Scotland)

Ryder Cup captains Paul McGinley and Tom Watson. Picture: Jane Barlow
Ryder Cup captains Paul McGinley and Tom Watson. Picture: Jane Barlow
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With the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games coming to Scotland it promises to be a year to savour

NEVER in the proud history of Scottish sport has a year been so keenly anticipated. The Commonwealth Games have been held on these shores before, as has the Ryder Cup, but not for a long time, not on the scale they are now, and certainly not in the space of two mouth-watering months.

Michael Jamieson. Picture: Getty

Michael Jamieson. Picture: Getty

Make no mistake, next year will be a monumental one for Scotland, for its people, its politics and its economy – especially in the build-up to an independence vote – but mostly it will be a special year for sport, and more particularly its followers, without whom the arrival in these parts of two global events would not be possible.

Scots have spent too long bemoaning their diminished influence on the field of play. They have spent too long taking their passion and their colour and their loyalty to the rest of world, only to find that the gesture was not reciprocated. Now, at long last, the world is coming to them, and it feels good.

As the year dawns, so does the reality of it. On the 2014 sports calendars that are about to be hung up on walls across the world, the names of Glasgow and Gleneagles will be registered routinely alongside the start of the Commonwealth Games in July and the Ryder Cup in September. Like never before, the small print will leap from the page.

It is a strange, almost surreal prospect, but it shouldn’t be. It should be the most natural thing in the world. After all, not many countries on the planet can claim to have given so much to sport for so long. If Delhi, Melbourne and Manchester can host the Commonwealth Games, and Medinah, Newport and Louisville the Ryder Cup, why not Glasgow and Gleneagles?

Daniel Purvis. Picture: Jane Barlow

Daniel Purvis. Picture: Jane Barlow

The wonder is that it has taken so long. If Scotland’s athletes are not the force they once were, its people are as committed and as innovative as ever. Not only can the country claim to have been instrumental in the early development of many sports, its world-class football stadiums have long been used – as they will in Glasgow this summer – to satisfy a wider palate. If Usain Bolt and Mo Farah take to the purpose-built track at Hampden Park – and organisers are still hopeful – it will be a high-profile reminder that Glasgow is not just about the Old Firm, and never has been.

Golf, meanwhile, fits Scotland like one of its gloves. The game, as we are tired of hearing, was born and bred on the country’s links. On average, the Open Championship visits our hallowed coastline every other year. The Ryder Cup can be traced back to a match between Great Britain and America at Gleneagles in 1921. It is almost criminal that, as the biennial match follows the money around Europe, Scotland has been allowed to stage it only once before. That was in 1973, when Muirfield was the lucky host.

These are changed days. The Commonwealth Games visited Edinburgh in 1970, and again in 1986 – when they were subject to a boycott and financial mismanagement – but, in the media age, they are an altogether different proposition, bringing worldwide attention, new investment and, if the politicians are to be believed, untold legacy opportunities.

Depending on your point of view, the “legacy” is either fundamental to hosting a major sports event or a convenient myth with which to justify the spending of public money. According to Glasgow 2014, the city’s east end has been redeveloped, jobs have been created and the economy has been stimulated. More Scots, it adds, will be “active” as a consequence of the Games.

The Ryder Cup, meanwhile, is expected to be worth £100 million to the Scottish economy, while its clubgolf programme claims to have introduced nearly 300,000 primary-school children to the sport. When the images of Gleneagles are broadcast around the world, the plan is that it will boost the golf-tourism industry that is vital to Scotland’s economy.

Let’s hope it’s not bucketing down and that the idyllic scenes from rural Perthshire are not obscured by waterproofs and golf brollies. The 2010 Ryder Cup, held in Wales, was hit by so much rainfall that an extra day was needed to complete the match. If the Scottish skies do their worst – and, in late September, there is every chance – the consequences do not bear thinking about.

The danger, as with all professional sport, is that we lose sight of why it is taking place at all. If, for example, the Ryder Cup was about golf, and the people who played it, the event would be taking place on the linksland, where huge tournaments are successfully held in just about any weather. Instead, for commercial reasons, the first Ryder Cup to be staged in Scotland for 41 years is not going to the best course in the country. It is not even going to the best in Auchterarder.

The arrival of a global event on your own doorstep also has the potential to be a frustrating experience. Many Scots will see no more of the action than they did when the Games were held in Kuala Lumpur, and the Ryder Cup in Andalusia. Just 40,000, the average football crowd at Ibrox, will be at Gleneagles on each of the Ryder Cup’s three days. Many of those at the Commonwealth Games will witness only the qualifying round of a minority sport. The best view, as ever, will be from the comfort of your own living room.

And then there is the political backdrop, from which there will be no escape. The independence referendum has been scheduled to take place between the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup, in the same year as the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn and assorted Homecoming events. If you believe that it is all a mere coincidence, and that politicians would not dare exploit the situation for political purposes, you probably also believe in the tooth fairy.

Sport, though, is an end in itself. It is what’s left when the politics and the money are stripped away. The people who make it work, namely those who play it, watch it and support it, do so not because they want a legacy or because it reduces unemployment or because they believe that Scotland should be separate from the United Kingdom. They do so because they like it. In Perthshire and Glasgow this summer, they will want the transport to run like clockwork, not because it will keep the visitors happy, or even the world’s media, but because it will get them there on time. They will want the sun to shine on Gleneagles, not because it will impress the watching television audience, and therefore boost the tourism industry, but because they would rather not get wet. If they pour their heart into it, like London did the 2012 Olympics, and Ireland the 2006 Ryder Cup, it will be because they want to.

All the signs are that they will. The Ryder Cup has sold out. Tickets for Glasgow 2014 are all but gone. On these pages a few weeks back, Brendan Foster went so far as to claim that, after the shortcomings of Delhi 2010, Glasgow could be credited with saving the Commonwealth Games. If that turns out to be true, it will be quite an achievement.

That said, the greatest beneficiary of what is about to unfold should be Scotland, and more particularly its people. There is no reason to suppose that, if they are not lucky enough to be in the arenas, they cannot be on the streets or in the pubs, taking ownership of the party. For all the spin-offs, all the responsibilities, all the opportunities and implications, next year, the biggest in the country’s sporting history, will be yours to enjoy. Make the most of it.