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Going it alone might help rather than hinder Scotland's sportsmen and women

Afew months ago a Scottish Olympian sought to persuade me that athletes from this country would be disadvantaged in terms of having opportunities to go to the Games if they were no longer part of a British team.

Vanessa Mae: "I'm not here to compete against the best, I'm here to participate with the best. That's the real Olympic spirit and message of this movement." Picture: Getty Images
Vanessa Mae: "I'm not here to compete against the best, I'm here to participate with the best. That's the real Olympic spirit and message of this movement." Picture: Getty Images

The argument was that there are some disciplines, such as team relays, where Scotland would not have enough decent performers to reach the qualifying standard. I was sceptical and a quick comparison with our most relevant neighbour proved me right.

At the London Olympics, a home Olympics for Britain so one at which every opportunity should have been taken to expose domestic talent, 51 competitors were selected from Scotland (population circa 5.3m). By contrast, Ireland (population circa 4.6m) which, for all its sporting superiority over Scotland in most team sports has relatively modest Olympic tradition in terms of medal success, sent 66 competitors.

Yet our discussion was not about the winning of medals, but about the taking part, not least since the Olympian in question - a beneficiary of many hundreds of thousands of pounds of development funding - did not have the slightest chance of winning a medal but got to the Games on the basis of being the best of British.

The conversation came to mind this week after Gordon Ritchie, a director of Snowsport Scotland, contacted me regarding his concern about the British Olympic Association's (BOA) decision to hand back five places it had been allocated for Alpine skiers in Sochi.

Three young Scots were directly affected, squeezed out by what Ritchie describes as a "brutal" British selection process. They would doubtless have been decidedly more competitive than their fellow British citizen Vanessa Mae, the violinist, who, thanks to her Thai parentage, is now Olympian. She was reported as saying ahead of taking part in the giant slalom: "I have to say the greats are here. I'm not here to compete against the best, I'm here to participate with the best. That's the real Olympic spirit and message of this movement.

Far better, it seems, to be able to combine personal wealth, family history and just enough ability to make the overall Olympic qualifying standard than to be a dedicated athlete whose performance is well within that qualifying standard, but not that which British authorities deem necessary to let you occupy a room.

When I investigated, it was not just the apparent unfairness that stood out, but the strangely defensive manner of the response from BOA officials.

Offered the chance to reply to Ritchie's criticisms, their director of communications gave an official explanation. However, less than 10 minutes after its arrival, he had clearly given the matter further thought and sent another message.

"On another note," he wrote. "While I'm not entirely clear on the direction of your story, it probably bears remembering that our Chef de Mission, Mike Hay, is Scottish and, as with every Team GB - winter and summer - we have a number of outstanding athletes from Scotland, across numerous sports, competing and excelling."

He had, inadvertently, raised another matter. His provision of this wholly unnecessary information in that context left it hard to avoid concluding that he was suggesting that the presence of Mike Hay and other Scots meant Scottish people should be satisfied that some sort of quota has been fulfilled and are, therefore, not entitled to raise any further concerns.

After I pointed that out, he called pretty swiftly to protest strenuously and claim he had only been trying to offer additional information to help me. His principal role is, of course, to help the organisation he works for by seeking to influence coverage, but the generous thing to do would be to accept at face value that this was merely a bit of public relations clumsiness.

Even so, the bottom line here is that three Scots who, by definition given the Snowsport Scotland director's complaint, would almost certainly be at these Winter Olympics if Scotland, the only part of the British Isles that has a meaningful snowsport industry, was sending its own team.

As to the overall question of whether more young Scots would have more opportunities on the world stage if allowed to compete for Scotland rather than Great Britain, the Olympics are only one part of the story.

How many of our young footballers would, for example, have the chance to take part in football's forthcoming European Championship qualifiers if a Great Britain team was entered, something UEFA and FIFA may increasingly press for if Scotland votes to remain part of the UK in September?

If that is a hypothetical situation then we have what might be considered empirical evidence from our other major winter team sport since the careers of a whole generation of Scottish rugby players have come and gone since Tom Smith was the last Scot to start a Test for the British & Irish Lions in 2001.

Then again, if we were merely supporting a British rugby team all the time it would spare us the misery of evenings like last Saturday's when Scottish self-esteem was sapped once more by our lads looking like a disorganised rabble compared to their English counterparts.

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