Glasgow, Scotland - Sport and politics don’t always make the most comfortable bedfellows and, in Scotland, which is eagerly awaiting its independence referendum on September 18, clashes have, at times, been hard to avoid.
July 23 will see the start of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow – an event that few could ever have imagined preceding a vote on Scotland’s place within the UK when the city won the right to stage the Games in 2007.
Yet, as athletes from around the Commonwealth head to Glasgow, Scottish sport will be thrust onto global spotlight like few other times in history. And just two months before the nation makes its biggest political decision in three centuries.
“The interaction of sport and the independence debate has been of the background music and episodic variety,” Gerry Hassan, a Scottish social and political commentator, told Al Jazeera. “The biggest moments have been the gathering and celebration and Brit-fest of the 2012 London Olympics, which were a transitory feel good moment of Britishness. There was some kind of impact [in Scotland], which tells us something about how soft sometimes people’s identities are.”
The other, contends Hassan, came when Scotland-born tennis star Andy Murray won Wimbledon in 2013 – the first British man to do so since Fred Perry in 1936.
“While it was a short-term political impact, Murray’s win had everyone falling over themselves to try and claim his victory,” said Hassan of a sport where, like athletics (barring the four-yearly Commonwealth Games itself), Scottish athletes participate under the British flag for major competitions and have access to UK-wide funding and facilities.
“You saw this from Scotland’s [nationalist] first minister Alex Salmond’s who quickly unveiled [the Scottish national flag in the Wimbledon crowd] to lots of right-wing commentators who jumped on the comment made by Murray that he had won as a British player.”
Yet, for many observers, Scottish sport has, to a large degree, been shielded from the constitutional debate by the staunch independence of its other sports – for example, football, rugby and cricket in which Scotland participates on the world stage as a nation in its own right.
“Scottish sport has, in general, really adopted a hands-off approach both collectively and personally,” Hugh MacDonald, the chief sports writer of the Glasgow-based Herald newspaper, said. “For example, if you talk about the biggest game in the world, football, Scotland is on the International Football Association Board, which gets to set the rules of the game.
It punches well above its weight, and it is a position which will remain for all time and which it will hang on tenaciously. There’s been a long campaign in Scottish football to keep it away from any Team GB (Great Britain) – especially in the football event in the London Olympics when the Scottish Football Association advised their players not to play, and indeed no Scottish players did play.”
From an individual standpoint, MacDonald says that while some Scottish sportspersons have offered their views on independence, most have come from those who have since stood down from the sporting limelight, like former Scotland and Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who has long supported the pro-union Labour Party and is advocating a No-vote in the referendum. Other current stars like Murray have been reluctant to voice their opinions.
You have to remember that athletes are, quite properly and obviously, self-centred, and an athlete’s first concern is always, ‘how does this affect me?
But he did speak of his dislike for Salmond’s flag-unveiling at his Wimbledon triumph and expressed his ambivalence at potentially representing Scotland in the future as opposed to Britain for whom he has competed since the age of 11.
Samera Ashraf is another Scottish sporting competitor, who has voiced her support for the pro-independence campaign. She told Al Jazeera that it is crucial that Scotland always has the chance to shine as a distinct nation – particularly at the Olympic Games.
“Scots have so much heart and soul for anyone from their country who is willing to compete at a national or international level,” said Scotland’s top Asian sportswoman who is a karate and kickboxing champion.
“The 2016 Rio Olympics would give Scotland a chance to have an independent team, to be put on the map and continue that sense of pride that Scottish people have – and not necessarily just those who are Scottish-born either, but other [non-Scots] who live in Scotland too.”
With Scotland’s leading sports fiercely independent entities in their own right, many observers have raised the funding concerns that may arise with athletics in Scotland should the country make the leap from constituent nation to nation-state. Others have speculated that many Scottish athletes would feel aggrieved at potentially losing their Team GB status at the likes of the Olympics. For MacDonald, however, both issues are not so clear-cut.
“Scotland is not a third-world country with regard to sport – it’s a very sophisticated country with regard to sporting education and sporting infrastructure especially in relation to the size of the country,” he argued. “As for representing Team GB, I get the feeling that some Scottish athletes would love to continue running for Team GB but not to the extent that their hearts would be broken to run for Scotland.
“You have to remember that athletes are, quite properly and obviously, self-centred, and an athlete’s first concern is always, ‘how does this affect me?’”