A follow-up call to our initial conversation did not bear immediate fruit because the chief executive of Scottish Squash and Racketball was unable to access his files immediately. He was on his hands and knees taping floors in a school gym so they could be used for Racquet WALL, a rough and ready version of his sport.
While many of his counterparts in other governing bodies spend most of their time talking, Dunlop is evidently getting on with what needs to be done in a sport which, on his appointment two years ago, was described by a sportscotland official not as failing, but as having failed.
At that time he was also bemused at discovering that what has long been perceived as a middle-class sport had been awarded funding through the Scottish Government's CashBack for Communities fund. While it is widely accepted that what is needed for sports to thrive is a pyramid structure – with mass participation making up the base building towards the elite at the peak – Dunlop recognised the history of squash had created what he describes as an obelisk structure; involvement simply being passed down through families, generation to generation. Rather than question why his sport was getting that support, then, the former Scottish Football Association executive seized the opportunity and initiated what he told the funders would be a four-year project.
Two years on, his position is pretty much reversed, since he has been even more shocked by the decision to end that funding without any apparent assessment of the success of a programme that has achieved almost double what it initially set out to, but is determined to build on the momentum that funding generated. Consequently that aforementioned taping of floors that has been going on in gyms and halls all over the country to accommodate the playing of what he describes as a "one wall" game – some incorporating the use of mobile walls – is just part of how he is taking his sport to a wider community.
Dunlop's own background is in marketing and that is very clear in the products he has developed to make the sport more accessible in conjunction with Roger Flynn, SSRL's hugely respected national coach who, hailing from Melbourne, is a similarly no-nonsense type.
Creating courts by using 'one wall' and even mobile walls, they are taking a sport they have re-branded as "bashing a ba' against a wa" into schools, sports centres and colleges, and a range of formats have been introduced to players of all ages and levels of ability. 'Big Hand' is essentially a gloved version for nursery and early primary school kids who can then graduate to mini squash, while for adults Racketball 2s, played in pairs and Racketball 3s, played on two courts as matches between teams of three, make for more social gatherings of players of mixed ability. Further highlighting the potential of a project in Easterhouse, which he claims will provide the only racket sports facility in the east end of Glasgow is, meanwhile, soon to feature in a Channel 5 series "Operation Homefront".
Dunlop is passionate about the need to promote sport in such deprived areas and rages against the failure of others to share his vision. "The stopping of 'multi sport' by the Sport and Wellbeing Unit is the dreadful proof that this demographic is simply not on the radar of those making sports policy in this country. That is indefensible," he said. "My personal view is that public sports facilities should be free for under 16s and the unwaged until say 5pm. We have free prescriptions and free care for the elderly. Free access to sport facilities would reduce the cost of both. I was recently in a sports centre at 2pm where there were two bored receptionists and no punters. Assets should be sweated and staff should be working. No real incremental cost but lots of added value."
He draws on his SFA experience for a point of comparison. "What is the point of building facilities if you do not intend to optimise utilisation," he added. "Fees are simply a barrier to entry and cost money to collect."
He is, though, nothing but optimistic about the way forward for his current sport. "It has been two years of trial and error but we are almost there now," said Dunlop. "The focus now is to make it happen and introduce many more people to the sport that Forbes magazine has described as the best for fitness. There are real health benefits to be had for all by embracing that most basic of instincts to bash a ball against a wall. We are also talking to other sports about the benefits of using our sport for cross training. Other performance directors see the benefits such as improved stamina, better decision making and sharper explosive sideways movement."
He is particularly enthused about the potential for Racketball to catch on in schools. "In ancient times, or at least when I was at school, sport was compulsory," he said. "In these changed days it is down to those responsible for the sports, the governing bodies, to make their sports compelling.
"We are told what we have developed works for the schools. Racketball is very accessible, almost anyone can play it and it is the ideal product to introduce people to rebound racket sports. We are in competition with all other sports. I do not wholly share the view that there is a cosy family of sport. I want kids to choose my sports and I want the best athletes in our squads. If all sports governing bodies worked harder at making their own product more appropriate for the different market segments, it follows that more people will take up sport."
Dunlop believes that far from targeting participation, which is hard to measure when sports are played on a more casual basis, most sports have been sucked into the club-centred culture, which in turn focuses on the creation of facilities rather than better use of those already there. "We have proven that we know the way forward for our sport," he said at a time when Scotland is ranked behind only England, France and Germany within European squash.
"When I was appointed, Roger was in the process of introducing a lot of regional and local development squads which the sport hadn't done. We've now got youth programmes which are probably second to none on a tiny budget, so the performance side of the sport is structured, but the participation side was always the worry. 'CashBack' forced us to think utterly and totally differently so for it to be withdrawn is just ridiculous."
So far they have only scratched the surface in terms of potential, having managed to set out around 70 courts for the new single wall variants, but the anecdotal evidence is powerful.
"We did John Knox Academy very early and it's not the best installation we've done but it's okay and I asked them to tell me the truth about how good it is. I was told they were queuing up outside the door to play and have set up an after schools club every Monday," said Dunlop. "We put it into Scotstoun because we're working with them [on setting up the Commowealth games venue] and they are now doing it on the Monday night and the kids just love it. Bashing a ball against a wall is a natural urge but it's up to us get the formats right and I think we're there."
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