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We won't be in same boat competing as Scotland

THE former First Minister, Henry McLeish, raised interesting issues in his report last week on the future of sport in an independent Scotland.

Scotland's Tim Baillie, left, and England's Etienne Stott teamed up to win gold at London 2012. Only three Scots won individual medals. Picture: Getty Images
Scotland's Tim Baillie, left, and England's Etienne Stott teamed up to win gold at London 2012. Only three Scots won individual medals. Picture: Getty Images

His independent review, for the Scottish Government, concluded that Scottish athletes could choose between Team GB and Team Scotland for the 2016 Olympics, should the country vote for independence. And he sees "no identifiable barriers that would restrict the aspiration for an independent Scotland to compete in the Rio Games in 2016".

Yet our analysis of Scottish Olympic performances suggests that in the prevailing sporting and financial climate, only a minority might opt to compete for a new, independent Scotland, while IOC vice president Craig Reedie - a Scot, from Bridge of Weir - questions whether participation in Rio is achievable.

The International Olympic Committee charter makes it possible for athletes to choose either country. So far, so good. But unless funding criteria for competitors radically changes in an independent Scotland, those who opt to continue competing for Great Britain (or whatever they decide to call themselves if Scotland leaves the Union) might be significantly better off than if they decide to be "Scottish".

Why? Because the majority of Scottish Olympic medals are in team sports of one kind or another - such as hockey, rowing, cycling and canoeing. At London 2012, 14 Scots won medals, but only three (Chris Hoy, Andy Murray and Michael Jamieson) did so singlehandedly. The other 11 medals (one of Hoy's and Murray's included) were with partners from elsewhere in the UK.

Many athletes would walk over hot coals just to compete in the Olympics, but motivation is primarily personal, not national. That's why funding is a critical issue.

Since the advent of the National Lottery, which first impacted on the 2000 Olympics, 32 Scots have won Olympic medals, yet only seven have been individual ones. From Athens in 1896 to London 2012, a total of 114 Scots have stood on the Summer Olympic podium, but just 48 have done so in individual events.

In the lottery era, the more world and Olympic medals on the cv, the greater the support. It pays the mortgage and the bills, as well as providing medical and scientific back-up.

Scotland's lack of critical mass in team sports such as football and rugby is already widely acknowledged, but that also applies to smaller units. If you can't find a fellow Scot to team up with, then your Olympic dream may be compromised. The option? Join up with English, Welsh or Irish athletes to qualify for backing which might help you achieve it. Badminton player Robert Blair quit Scotland for England because he could see no prospective up-and-coming doubles partner. Though after some years he returned to the fold, it exemplifies the dilemma.

The heart may dictate Scotland but the head may rule elsewhere. Scotland may be obliged to be less prescriptive than UK Sport in providing funding support when the lottery licence runs out in 2023.

Reedie suggests that an independent Scotland would first need to gain membership of the United Nations before being granted IOC status. However, their charter merely says a member must be recognised by the international community.

I put this very question to the then IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, in an exclusive Herald interview in 1996.

"We recognised the 15 national Olympic committees born from the republics of the former Soviet Union, and five from the former Yugoslavia," said Samaranch. "We have to be very cautious. We want to recognise not countries, but states. What is the difference? For us, a state is a country recognised as a state by the United Nations. With that recognition by the UN, it is very easy to get Olympic recognition. Though not automatic, it is more or less a formality."

Yet UN recognition is clearly not obligatory. Today there are 193 UN member nations but 204 in membership of the IOC.

The Soviet Union was formally dissolved on Boxing Day, 1991. Less than three months later it was a Unified States team which represented the former Soviet nations at the World Cross-Country Championships in Boston. The former Soviet Union states also combined as the Unified States in Barcelona at the 1992 Olympics, but by the following spring, 15 months after dissolution, Belarus, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Turkmenistan and Russia appeared in a global athletics championship for the first time: the world cross-country at Amorebieta, in Spain. All were by then members of the UN, and in the summer of '93, the former Soviet nations were independently represented at the World Athletics Championships in Stuttgart. World athletics rules do not markedly differ from those of the IOC.

The Rio de Janeiro Olympics fall 23 months after the Scottish independence referendum, so in the event of a "yes" vote there should be ample time for Scotland to gain IOC status and make their debut.

McLeish also concluded that Scotland's over-complicated sports governance and funding structures need simplified, and that the Government should consider future spending as a cost-saving exercise against health and other budgets. On these counts he is right. But I'd take issue with his assertion that sportscotland needs to better understand the role and levels of coaching. We don't always see eye to eye with the national agency, but recent improvement in coaching and elite performance infrastructure is monumental.

Sportscotland concede nothing is ever beyond improvement, but are ready whatever the outcome in September.

"Scotland boasts excellent coaching and expertise in a multitude of disciplines from the sportscotland Institute of Sport and Scottish governing bodies of sport, which have contributed to distinguished results on the international stage," said a spokesman. "We are preparing to assume UK Sport's current responsibilities for Scottish Olympians and Paralympians in the event of a Yes vote."

Irrespective of the outcome they will "ensure that our high-performance athletes continue to receive the best possible training, coaching and support services that are right for the individual, their circumstances and their sport".

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