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TV review: why we should keep indyref politics out of the Games

Sport is about making people smile, not about making them vote.

John Beattie
John Beattie

So says John Beattie in Games People Play (BBC2), looking at the impact the Commonwealth Games might have on the referendum, and he laments the fact that so much modern sport is stage-managed and politicised.

But surely that's inevitable? We have to accept politicians as a necessary evil. Apart from allowing people who don't like The Smiths to vote, the presence of politicians is democracy's chief flaw.

It used to be possible to ignore them but then social media and the indyref campaign combined to create a perfect storm. Now they're everywhere, no longer restricted to the news or the kissing of local babies. Our only hope is that their very omnipresence will soon make them invisible, just as the constant wailing of a car alarm eventually drops out of your hearing.

However, with the Commonwealth Games starting tomorrow and the referendum soon after, there's little hope that our elected representatives will back off and let us enjoy the tournament for its own sake. It's inevitable they're going to politicise it, using everything from flags to train timetables to make a point. Even today, Alistair Carmichael warned Alex Salmond not to politicise the Games which was, of course, a blatant attempt to do that very thing.

Admittedly, others are using the Games to make political points, such as Peter Tatchell and the Atos protesters, so it may just be impossible to have a tournament which is free from politics and is simply about sport and showing a miraculously sunny Glasgow to the world.

How John Beattie wishes it could be that simple. He loves the 'simplicity and purity of sport' but fears that's all lost now, tainted by the opportunism of politicians seeking 'a free ride on the back of our sporting heroes.'

He admits he dabbled in politics when on the playing field: he and his team-mates would sing Flower of Scotland to themselves when playing England, as only God Save The Queen was permitted. This act of defiance helped stir up heat against the opponents and he says he would become 'violently Scottish' in order to win.

He interviewed boxer Alex Arthur and judo player Connie Ramsay about the link between sport and politics. Both are Yes campaigners, and it was noticeable that the Yes vote was subtly linked here to fury and scuffle and anger, rather than common sense.

The featured sportsmen from the No camp were both sombre men in suits, one of whom, David Sole, dismissed the idea that sporting passion can translate into political persuasion. 'It's just a game of rugby,' he explained. The No camp were portrayed here as the sensible statesmen and Yes as the scrappy, rambunctious hotheads.

But whether the fervour and optimism of the Games will sway undecided voters was not the most important issue. Rather, the programme focused on how politicians have muddied the clear waters of sport. This was a matter very close to John Beattie's heart, and he seemed to truly resent the insidious involvement of politicians in our sporting events. They are 'desperate to bask in reflected glory' he said.

Chris Hoy agreed with him, saying his words are always 'twisted and used' by these elected desperados. Instead of sport being an honest battle of wits and strength it's now polluted by stage-management, and media training is almost as important as physical training. The athletes are reared and lectured, told how to smile and pose and wave, all so they can slot neatly beside a smiling politician for the cameras.

Naturally, the fear is that these fake, carnivalesque elements will seep into the referendum and trivialise the campaign. Already we've seen this happen, such as the inevitable footage of the dafty in a kilt at any political gathering, clanking a claymore behind him because, clearly, he's more Scottish than the rest of us and this is the only way to demonstrate it. Look at his blue face paint, you fool!

We must be on our guard to stop politicians turning our referendum into such a gaudy spectacle. The remaining weeks of the indyref campaign should be about thought and debate and careful reflection, not hired costumes, but people quietly discussing or silently thinking doesn't create a photo opportunity or a front page story.

Vile online abuse, or someone dressed up like Mel Gibson, does and so politicians love it as it keeps them in the news, but smothers the real issues.

The programme finished by arguing politicians have no right to latch on to sporting success. In this country we use cash instead of steroids to pump up our athletes, says Beattie. We use tax money to purchase elite training facilities and the best equipment, so when one of our athletes clambers up onto the podium and the politicians swoop to clap at our nation's greatness, it's a sham. The 'greatness' of the nation is irrelevant. It was simply the case that the athlete had vast amounts of money made available to develop their talent.

Therefore, the union of politics and sport is false and distorting and for that reason politicians should keep out of our Games, especially given their proximity to the referendum.

For these two short weeks, I beg that they leave the Games to the people. I don't want to see Alex Salmond appearing behind an athlete to jiggle a flag. I don't want London Tories suddenly appearing with well-timed cheques. Politicians - the whole creeping lot of you - keep your beaks out.

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