Hardeep Singh Kohli began his exploration of My Caledonian Commonwealth (BBC Radio 2, Wednesday) with a look at Scottish sport, claiming at the start that the nation has a “reputation as glorious losers”, and he’s certainly right about the last bit – though maybe less of the glorious. He interviews the rower Katherine Grainger, who says that times have changed and the public now expect more. “I think now the Tartan Army want to see success. We can’t admit to winning or beating people or being the best, it’s just embarrassing.” So much so that they have done their best to give their opponents as much of a chance as possible.
Kohli is supposedly a comedian but there are very few laughs in the programme beyond the unintentional ones that arise from comments like that. Facts like “People die in Glasgow before they do in sub-Saharan Africa” don’t really help, even in a dour, Scottish way. He is building up to his home town hosting the Commonwealth Games, though this particular spectacular will be forever regarded a poor man’s Olympics because a lot of the world’s best athletes won’t be there, having long ago learned to run fast enough that the British couldn’t catch them.
“While they still celebrate the superlatives of sport, the Commonwealth Games are about the family of sport,” Kohli says. That would be the family with the one sibling who’s really good at sport and the other one who’s a bit uncoordinated but tries really hard. And maybe another brother or sister who sits in their bedroom playing Fifa and eating a big bowl of deep-fried geekness.
“It’s the old adage, isn’t it, it’s not the winning but the taking part,” Kohli adds. At these Games, almost anyone can take part. Take Mohammad Shahzad, a doctor of biochemistry at the University of Glasgow who will be representing Pakistan at lawn bowls having recently discovered the game while living in Scotland. It’s fair to assume that Pakistan don’t have much of a bowls team: “You have to struggle not to bowl it like in cricket because it’s against the etiquette of the game,” he admits. But it would certainly liven things up a bit.
Perhaps that is how these Games can find their identity in the post-colonial era, by being completely different from the Olympics: as well as overarm bowls you could have the high jump with no landing mat, rowing in a sea of sharks, archery with live targets...
One thing Hardeep Singh failed to mention was the Scottish penchant for claiming to have invented all sorts of mainstream sports, like golf, cricket and rugby. He does interview the rebel cyclist Graeme Obree, who famously made one of his bikes out of washing machine parts, so the ingenuity is there. So perhaps it’s time for them to invent a few more sports that they can be really good at. Get the biochemists involved too, and they can create a whole new race of superhuman Scots to make sure they win everything before all those pesky colonies catch up and start beating them again.