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The blinkered pursuit of success at all costs is damaging sport in the long term

FOR all that the pursuit of excellence is a vital element of elite sport, a disturbing machismo has been emerging among messages emanating from the powers that be.

Caitlin Pringle and other Scottish badminton players have suffered at the hands of selection policies. Picture: Newsquest

At funding level we are told that basketball, a team sport that is hugely popular in the inner city and housing schemes and doing more than most to offer lifestyle options to deprived youngsters, is having its funding cut in favour of those that are largely accessible only to the middle classes. Britain, it seems, is keen to be a leader in sports that others cannot afford to play.

The same sort of philosophy is being applied when it comes to team selections, with regimented adherence to pre-set qualifying standards, revolving around immediate medal potential or, at least, capacity to reach finals.

Some would have us believe that approach is being rewarded on the medals table, but let me offer a comparison. Britain, with the ruthless medal-at-all-costs approach it claims to have, sent 51 athletes to the Sochi Winter Olympics and accrued a grand total of four medals, one of them gold. The Netherlands sent a similar number of athletes, 51 in all. They picked up 24 medals, eight of them gold.

Admittedly, Great Britain did over-achieve on a less than ambitious-looking overall medal target that looked a lot less tough for those who administrate the sports to achieve than the excellence they claim to be demanding from the athletes when it suits them.

There is a serious debate to be had, then, about this use of public funds and whether it is more important to maximise participation in sport rather than channel vast sums towards indulging those engaged in pursuits that are available to the few rather than the many.

However, even setting aside the question of the effectiveness of methods used to pursue silverware obsessions, among the least edifying elements of this approach is that it is not only Neanderthal, insecure men who are responsible, since those at the top of some key organisations are, in fact, women.

Taking into account the generation we are mostly talking about, it is hard not to wonder about the Maggie Thatcher influence on those "leaders" who seem to believe that to demonstrate toughness in what are traditionally testosterone-fuelled environments, they must out-macho the men.

However, as with Thatcher, the danger has to be that these would-be trailblazers - with the emphasis on the blazers - risk becoming hard-line fundamentalists whose manta of 'no compromise' fails to understand the human element required in developing elite sportspeople.

The evidence that they just don't get it was nowhere more evident than in the case of the badminton players Rebekka Findlay and Caitlin Pringle, who were effectively told they could only be second-class members of Team Scotland's badminton squad for the Commonwealth Games.

They would join with eight colleagues to contest the team event but then, when all the others took part in the individual singles and doubles events, they would not be allowed to participate.

The only people preventing Findlay and Pringle from playing in those individual events are, it should be stressed, administrators at Commonwealth Games Scotland.

Their decree also denied Jillie Cooper, a world-class performer, the chance of playing in the women's doubles because she does not have a partner.

The appeal against that decision was to be discussed last night and, to counter accusations of misogyny or ageism, let me note that the fight was being led by another strong woman who would not be too happy with me for making any reference to her age, Anne Smillie, Badminton Scotland's chief executive.

Smillie really does get elite sport and is doubtless aware that, whatever the outcome of the appeal, some damage will have to be undone as a result of these players having initially been told they were lesser team members. If their confidence has not been too badly damaged, Findlay and Pringle could contribute to Scotland having a real tilt at a medal in the team event, not least by protecting the top players from having to play too many matches, as the likes of Colin Fleming must do to support Andy Murray in the Davis Cup.

They are, though, also fine young players in their own right, and could benefit hugely from competing in Glasgow. They should be given every opportunity to do so. In that context it was uplifting to listen, last week, to Amy Regan, the gymnast who is still a teenager, talk excitedly about how much she had taken from her involvement in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi as a 15-year-old.

As for the argument that Findlay and Pringle needed to qualify for the individual events in their own right, how does that sit with the squash players who fought their way into the team through targets achieved in the rarely-played doubles disciplines and are consequently now - quite rightly - being allowed to play singles?

Team dynamics and building for the future are all part of what should be happening within the Scottish team in this very special year. You only properly get that, though, if you really understand sport, rather than indulging in posturing as you pretend.

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