Why politics and sport shouldn’t mix

I have written before about how I struggle to understand how people feel ‘pride’ in their country at, say, sporting events. For me, being proud of your country is a bit like being proud of this week’s lottery numbers or something. I just don’t get it.

For whatever reason though, patriotism undoubtedly exists and it can be a major vote winner. Politicians know this and they take every opportunity to associate themselves with some kind of patriotic cause.

The Olympics is one of the worst instances of politicians engaging in this kind of blatant demagoguery. For instance, Kelly Holmes was given a gong a few years ago because it was felt that her achievements in Athens in 2004 should be “recognised”. Much the same sort of thing will happen this year — it has already been confirmed by Chief Nationalist Demagogue, Gordon Brown.

Mike Power put it best on Twitter: “Surely the achievments of the British Olympic medallists have already been ‘recognised’ ? They got f**cking medals! Jeez.”

A couple of weeks back Mike Smithson wrote about how dangerous it is for politicians to claim credit for the achievements of athletes:

But it’s dangerous stuff trying to claim credit in this way. Firstly it appears to detract from the performances of the athletes in Beijing themselves and secondly it raises the question – where did the money come from that has made this happen?

Obviously the SNP haven’t read this otherwise they wouldn’t have come out with this sort of claptrap. It is just a week or so ago that Alex Salmond was acting as though Chris Hoy was the only person ever to win a gold medal.

Chris Hoy’s dad was pretty quick off the mark, pointing out that a Scottish Olympics team would die on its arse because Scotland doesn’t have the same world-class facilities and funding that Team GB has. Want to decrease the amount of medals Scots get at the Olympics? Simple: rip them out of the GB squad.

Before any nats start jumping up and down and start accusing me of belittling Scotland or somesuch nonsense, let me just close that argument down straight away. What we are talking about here is a simple concept: economies of scale.

First of all Scotland would have to build three velodromes at £50m a time to match UK facilities. Then there’s world-class performance funding (£4m a year). And it takes eight years to get a medal. Multiply that across all sports, and Scotland would be facing a huge sports bill.

You had to have a heart of stone not to let out an almighty guffaw when Chris Hoy himself yesterday stated that a separate Scottish Olympics team would be disastrous (as noticed by Bill Cameron:

We don’t have an international facility for cycling and we don’t have the coaching structures in place. In fact, we don’t have anything in place, so the whole idea is ridiculous. I’ve not lived in Scotland for nine years because there is nowhere for me to train. I’m a Scottish athlete but I’m proud to perform in a British team.

That was added to by one of Scotland’s other most successful Olympic athletes, the canoeist David Florence:

It’s a non-starter and he should consult athletes first before he comments. Scotland would have to build a new slalom course first and they would have to build a velodrome.

I am very proud to be Scottish, to have been born in Aberdeen and have Edinburgh as my home town. But I am also very proud to represent Great Britain and everything that stands for, which is not just Scotland.

I’m as proud to wear the union jack as I am the saltire. I don’t have a problem separating my pride in being a Scot from being British at the same time.

This gets to the heart of one of the things that most irritates me about the SNP. While I am not a nationalist of any kind, it strikes me that one of Scotland’s special strengths is its ability to have a distinct identity of its own, and indeed a sense of national pride, without having to completely dissociate itself from a larger political entity, the United Kingdom.

One can say he feels equally Scottish and British without any sense of contradiction. Indeed, whenever the ‘Moreno question‘ is asked, the results show that the vast majority of Scots can feel at once part Scottish and part British. Now this approach is something that I can feel proud of. It is one that Scotland’s Olympic athletes exhibit, and it is very admirable. Unfortunately the SNP cannot be so admirable because it would undermine their very raison d’être.

Mr Eugenides has got it spot on. Using Chris Hoy for their own petty political ends was always going to be a risky game for the SNP to play. They tried to capitalise on his gold medal haul by saying that Chris Hoy’s success shows why Scotland should have its own Olympic team. Then Hoy himself bit them on the bum by pointing out that “I wouldn’t have three gold medals hanging round my neck if I wasn’t part of the British team.”

There is another aspect of the SNP’s argument that appears to be fundamentally flawed. Like I’ve said, I don’t think people should feel proud for other people’s achievements. But conceding that some people do, are people more likely to be proud of the team representing them winning 19 gold medals or 3 gold medals (all won by the same person)?

I don’t even have to be a big fan of the idea of nationalities measuring their penis sizes through the medium of sport to find it hilarious that Great Britain finished ahead of Australia in the medals table. Scotland couldn’t have achieved that. Splitting Scotland’s medals apart, they would be ranked 20th-or-so. That is admirable enough. But as Chris Hoy and David Florence pointed out, Scottish athletes relied on UK-sized facilities to get their medals.

Like Mike Smithson said, it’s dangerous for politicians to attach themselves to athletic achievements. The irony is that neither Labour nor the SNP could ever take credit for a sporting success. If anyone can take credit for Great Britain’s performance in Beijing this year, it appears to be John Major for setting up the National Lottery. The results have come through at just the right time. The first injection of lottery money will have come just at the time when most of the current batch of athletes were beginning to mature in their sporting development.

Whether you think that is a good thing that so much public money is ploughed into sport is another matter. Alex Massie says yes, Fraser Nelson says no.

I definitely lean closer to Fraser Nelson’s point of view. I don’t think public money should be spent on the arts or sport full stop. Of course you would expect schools to provide PE lessons, though having said that if one thing put me off becoming an athlete it was PE lessons. Beyond that, the athletes should be by themselves as far as I am concerned.

I just don’t see what advantage it is for a country to have lots of sporting success. If it’s a “feel good” thing, lottery and government cash would be better spent on cute bunny rabbits to be sent to every household.


  1. You’ve put far more eloquently the point I was trying to make at SNP Tactical voting yesterday where Jeff wrote (in a bigger piece),

    “of course Scottish athletes will continue to enjoy success whether they fly the Union Jack or the Saltire.”

    I replied there,

    “True – if things were down purely to an individual athlete. However, taking into account, for example in cycling, the cost of getting the best coaches, the technical development (aerodynamic socks?, tweaks to the aerodynamics of the bike), the competition to get into the team for particular events where intense internal competition improves overall performance, and a good big’un will usually beat a good littl’un – unless the littl’un invests heavily in a targeted fashion. From a UK perspective the investment in a series of Olympic sports has paid off. An athlete with innate ability will trump a system (Dundee’s Daley Thompson, for example), but a stronger system will generally get better results. ”

    And the provision of world class facilities is crucial to that system.

    I think that sport and the arts should be funded, partly because I believe the market in both so skews matters that some state intervention is required. For example, the market in the UK in sport is totally dominated by football. That’s where the money goes, the big sponsorship deals, the big TV deals.

    In the arts without state subsidies we’d have very little material in translation in the UK (when publishers like Dedalus, Serpent’s Tail, Arcadia, Europa Press, Bitter Lemon Press &c), because the market prioritises Grisham, Dan Brown, &c. OUr culture is enriched by the exposure to other cultures, as well as our understanding of the world (Dedalus , for example, publishes a number of books on Arabian/Arabic (sp?) writing and thinking). Would the market publish in readily accessible paperback form such work, or would it remain the province of the academy, published by academic presses at astronomical costs? I think the latter – and I, for one, would rather have a subsidised book of Arabian literature than a fluffy bunny.

  2. First of all Scotland would have to build three velodromes at £50m a time to match UK facilities. Then there’s world-class performance funding (£4m a year). And it takes eight years to get a medal. Multiply that across all sports, and Scotland would be facing a huge sports bill.

    If 3 velodromes are deemed adequate for the proportion of the 60m people in the UK who need to use them, why on earth would an independent Scotland need an equal number to meet the needs of 5m? That argument makes no sense, and it’s perhaps telling that it came from Mr Hoy snr rather than the man of the moment, who seems to have a much more nuanced take on things.

    The best athletes train at the best facillities, no matter where they are. That’s why Andy Murray is based in Spain, and why the UK Olympic Team goes to Lillehammer rather than Aviemore. I dare say that if Scotland one day has its own Olympic team, her athletes will still go furth of Scotland to hone their skills, just as athletes from outside Scotland will continue to come to use facillities like the National Swimming Academy at Stirling, or, indeed, the new velodrome planned for Glasgow.

  3. Richard, you expect the cyclists to be welcomed though at the Manchester Velodrom, whilst team England are planning their success?
    Also one of the medals Hoy won was with help of the other two non-scottish cyclists, so Salmond can’t really count that as one of his.

  4. Richard, you expect the cyclists to be welcomed though at the Manchester Velodrom, whilst team England are planning their success?

    Ryan – athletes routinely use training facillities in other countries – even when they are about to compete against those self same host countries.

    The British Winter Olympic team regularly trains outside of the UK. Why do you imagine that Scottish athletics administrators would somehow find themselves shut off from the ability to arrange training regimes in England, or anywhere else for that matter?

  5. Very nice, and I agree with most (perhaps all) of it but I think it’s worth remembering for all that people are chastising the SNP for apparently pushing for a separate Scottish Olympics team, I believe the news story only came out because the media pushed and pushed and pushed Stewart maxwell into giving them a quote in an event totally unrelated to sport.

    I think it’s important to be wary of when the media drum up stories just to cause a storm where one didn’t exist before.

    I tried to stay out of this one because think about it…. “SNP want a separate Olympics team” is hardly breaking news when they’ve wanted an independent country for decades.

    I say again, the SNP didn’t put this story in the headlines. The media did.