Olympics: Mike Whittingham urges Scots athletes to tackle sporting Everest instead of Munros

AS the head of the Sportscotland Institute of Sport, Mike Whittingham knows he will be either damned or praised by raw statistics when Scotland’s numerical contribution to Great Britain’s Olympic squad is tallied up.

“The size of Team GB will be 525-550,” he declares. “If we get more than 50 Scots that will be fantastic.”

Beyond that, medals will do much to validate the £13 million or so diverted annually into the Sportscotland Institute of Sport and the country’s assorted performance and training programmes. An adequate return on investment in times of fiscal restraint would help Whittingham, the institute’s director since 2006, argue the case for preserving at least the status quo.

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Having built what he believes is a world-class team behind the team, his crew of coaches, scientists, doctors and development staff have been ensuring bodies and minds are attuned to the task at hand. However, following the injection of hard cash to give sports the backing required, those who fail to make the grade will face inevitable consequences from all quarters. High performance, simply, is not cheap.

“If you want results on the world stage, it does cost money,” said Whittngham. “Even keeping Andy Murray in the [world tennis] top four probably costs more money each year, not less. Look at World Cup rugby, Wales got into the top four but that could have been Scotland. It wasn’t, so they dropped down the rankings.

“There’s a recession on. It’s more difficult to get the BBC to renew broadcasting rights. Sponsors won’t pay as much. It becomes a commercial problem. So, while I can talk about process and building world-class systems, the harsh reality is that everyone is judged on the outcome.”

Scotland, he says, must do everything possible to punch above its weight. At a UK level, there is a 27 per cent attrition rate from elite programmes due to injury or a loss of desire. Minimising wastage is high on the institute’s target list.

“It’s disappointing when you lose someone,” says Whittingham. “Kirsty McWilliam, world junior triathlon champion, thinks it’s all too much and retires by the age of 19. We’ve all failed her.”

As a former international track athlete, the Englishman is well versed in the perils of the daily sporting grind. Having also been a top-level coach, guiding 400m stars Roger Black and Kriss Akabusi in their pomp, Whittingham has first-hand experience of the effort required to reach an Olympic podium. What it should not be, he underlines, is a sacrifice, not with the backing available from Lottery funding.

“When I was an athlete, we had nothing but we still won medals. The group I coached had none of this support. They had to pay for it. Now there’s no excuse for Scottish athletes but they have to reach the criteria. They have to be at a certain level.”

Having previously worked at the coalface, Whittingham cannot hide his frustration at those who refuse to help themselves. There remains, he believes, a pervading Caledonian mentality that suggests losing pluckily is an attribute worth nurturing. Too many sports are still thinking small. Part of that, some argue, is that the Commonwealth Games are given an undue prominence that does not reflect their diminished importance. London 2012, rather than Glasgow 2014, should be seen as the pinnacle.

“One criticism I’d have about the Scottish attitude and mindset is that you might think a Munro is a mountain,” Whittingham observes. “You might think it’s K2. We have to remind them what it takes to win an Olympic medal. It’s not only about the Commonwealths. It’s about Olympics. We’re focused on Glasgow but we want Olympic and Paralympics medals and we’re telling athletes to aspire to the big stage.”

He hopes that journey can begin at home, rather than south of the Border. His hobby horse is to lure more UK centres of excellence to Scotland to redress an obvious geographic imbalance. Wrestling, he confirms, is a primary target. Just as vital, he adds, is to strengthen the capacity for universities to help students combine education and sport.

Stirling, adjacent to the institute’s home, has led the way. There is hope Glasgow can follow its lead.

“I don’t think it will be long before, if you’re an athlete who wants to pursue an elite career, you have a choice,” Whittingham notes. “It’s not like it was ten years ago. You don’t have to go to Loughborough or Bath. You can get a Winning Student grant. There are some great facilities like the Hoy Velodrome, the Commonwealth Arena, the pools in Glasgow or the track at Scotstoun. You put the jigsaw pieces around it and I don’t expect as many athletes to migrate south. Throw in the tuition fees and it’s attractive.”

It’s another ploy in the numbers game. Only in time will we learn if it produces a winning hand.