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Purse string-holding administrators wield a sinister influence on Scottish sport

IT is tempting to wonder whether Gordon Ritchie, a director of Snowsport Scotland, would have taken the course of action he did last week had he fully understood what the consequences would be.

Competing with the likes of  US skier Ted Nigety, who won gold in the men's giant slalom yesterday, is beyond the means of most young Scots.  Picture: Agence Zoom
Competing with the likes of US skier Ted Nigety, who won gold in the men's giant slalom yesterday, is beyond the means of most young Scots. Picture: Agence Zoom

It takes enormous courage to speak out against policies that have been put in place by bigger organisations, yet Ritchie did so and future generations of skiers with Olympic ambitions may well have reason to be sincerely grateful for his intervention.

Seeking to fight the cause of athletes in his sport, he contacted Herald Sport to complain about the British Olympic Association's failure to take their full allocated quota of Alpine skiers to the Winter Olympics. By doing so, he risked isolation - a fate which looked a genuine possibility in the aftermath.

The result was that Bill Aitken, the chairman of Snowsport Scotland, placed a statement on the organisation's website disowning Ritchie's views and claiming there were inaccuracies in the story.

He took this course of action without consulting his board, ignoring an invitation from Herald Sport to explain their lack of support for their own board member.

They were forced to remove the article the following day under pressure from their own members, just as Ritchie was being vindicated by the issuing of a humiliating apology for an earlier offence by Paddy Mortimer, the head of performance at British Ski and Snowboard. Mortimer, too, was disowned by the organisation he represents but, in his case, BSS had no choice, given the extraordinary nature of his claim that Alpine skiers "blatantly fixed" their rankings. He was forced to admit he had offered a false justification of their selection process.

Since then, a public meeting held during the English Alpine Skiing Championships in Bormio produced support from 80% of those attending for a vote of no confidence in BSS's selection policy and its governance, the rest abstaining, with not a single vote the other way.

However, the process that led to Snowsport Scotland's statement offers cause for concern. While they did not consult properly with their board, it was apparently made on the advice of sportscotland and their paid executives who, effectively, depend on the national agency for their salaries.

Since some of sportscotland's advisers also have roles within the British Olympic Association, it fuels suspicion that wheels work within wheels. Even if that is not the case, the national sports agency's default position seems to be to seek to shut down any sort of controversy within sports where, as principal funders, they have controlling interest.

Controversy is a by-product of elite sport, of course, but that is irrelevant if, as seems to be the case, the major motivation is not to generate real interest, and thereby participation, but to create hothouse environments for a chosen few.

My suspicion is that someone, somewhere, advised Aitken to avoid further public discussion - and drawing further attention on this subject - by putting a statement on the website that could be referred to subsequently when the dust had settled and dissenting voices could be isolated and discreetly silenced.

There are now suggestions that attempts to call a full meeting of member ski clubs have been blocked by the chairman. When it should be fighting for the sport's credibility, it seems that Snowsport Scotland is in danger of losing its way in trying to placate others.

This has been an all too familiar story in recent months, as Herald Sport has offered the spotlight to sports that do not normally get much attention but have a huge opportunity in this year of Winter Olympics and Commonwealth Games. In that process, it has been a source of dismay to hear board members of one governing body after another complain about the influence wielded by people in funding organisations with little or no understanding of their sport.

What makes Ritchie's courage all the more admirable is that few say so on the record, due to fears about implications for funding - which seems to be used as a weapon for purse string-holding administrators to defend their own positions.

On which note, I read a piece last weekend by one of Britain's leading sports writers which offered hearty praise to Lizzy Yarnold, but pointed out, quite reasonably, that her success will do nothing to change the lives of youngsters across the country. He noted that UK Sport has just cut all funding for basketball, which can do exactly that.

Fewer youngsters are, he pointed out, now participating in sport than before the London Olympics. Meanwhile all sorts of middle class-dominated sports are securing disproportionate amounts of funding for small sectors of society on the basis of medal projections.

Examining these sports that receive little profile and even less scrutiny has, then, generated some interesting answers. Among those was the response of one of the country's most senior winter sport administrators when asked whether she knew how youngsters might get into bobsleigh, luge or Yarnold's skeleton. She ummed and erred for a few seconds then said she thought it was essentially a military-dominated sport.

In these days when Oor Wullie's go-kart was decommissioned on the basis that it presented a health and safety risk, it certainly seems hard to imagine how Scottish youngsters who have not taken the Queen's Shilling might get into our latest gold medal sport. But perhaps that is part of the grand masterplan too.

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