When the first Scottish medallist waves to the home crowd at this week’s Commonwealth Games, the cameras will seek out one particular face in the crowd. Assuming he is there, and he will be most days, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond will inevitably share the glory. But will he wave back, and will he be brandishing a saltire?
Ever since Salmond hijacked Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win last year by unfurling a Scotland flag on Centre Court, fears have been expressed about whether the Commonwealth Games will receive similar treatment with the referendum on Scotland’s future just a couple of months away. Although banners containing political slogans will be banned, both sides in the debate about Scottish independence know the power of an image, and the first athlete to overstep the mark will be guaranteed banner headlines both sides of the border.
The Games are on terrestrial TV all day across the UK. The BBC, as host broadcaster, faces a tricky pitch, because a great number of events will feature collisions between Scotland and England, who have named 416 athletes to the hosts’ 310, and the tone of all the TV coverage will be managed from HQ, with BBC Scotland restricted to their own news bulletins if they want to offer a parochial view.
When a journalist asks a sweaty Scottish winner how he or she feels in the aftermath of victory over an English rival, there is the potential for that conversation to stray from sport. Some, and perhaps a lot, of Team Scotland’s 310 athletes will vote Yes in September.
“We believe that all our athletes are entitled to express their opinion on any subject, but we have advised them to bear in mind that there is a heightened interest in the independence referendum this year,” says a Team Scotland spokeswoman. “I am sure some of them will nail their colours to the mast and, indeed, some of them have already done so. All we would do is remind them that it’s important not to let anything become a distraction.”
The likelihood is that most Scottish competitors will not need political sentiment for motivation and there is, anyway, the further question of mixed allegiances. Michael Jamieson and Eilidh Child are Scotland’s poster boy and girl, and both live in Bath. So don’t expect too much politics from them.
Manchester 2002 apart, the Commonwealth Games has come to mean more to Scottish athletes than to their English counterparts in recent times. In athletics, swimming and cycling, opportunities to wear Scottish colours and engage in inter-British rivalry are few and far between. Opportunities to do so in front of raucous Scottish crowds are rarer still.
Perhaps the sport will overshadow the debate. Perhaps the Yes and No campaigners will behave themselves and allow the athletes to concentrate only on winning. Perhaps they care for politics less than we think. When asked how he felt about the possibility of Scotland breaking away from the UK and how this might affect the way English athletes are received at Hampden Park, Mo Farah said he was not aware of the referendum. Perhaps – and we can only hope – the only athletes who talk politics are the ones qualified to do so.
Imogen Bankier is not one of those peripheral contenders for whom the next fortnight represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to achieve something on the international stage. She is a world-class Scottish badminton player, a doubles specialist who won silver at the World Championships partnering Chris Adcock.
When she spoke out, late last year, about what independence would mean for Scots in an Olympic context, she did so because she felt that a serious question was being treated with flippancy and risked being swept up by a bandwagon. Bankier, who spent years under the GB umbrella at Milton Keynes, challenged the nationalist declaration that an independent Scotland would be better off having its own Olympic team, and this inevitably led to the assumption that she was a unionist.
A few weeks later, she explained to me that, as a graduate from the Open University who had studied politics, she had not intended to make a political point other than to plead with others to take the big political question more seriously. “I just don’t think people should be in favour of independence because they’ve seen Braveheart,” she said.
Ironically, the last time Scotland hosted a Commonwealth Games, in Edinburgh 1986, politics provided the backcloth when 32 of the 59 eligible nations boycotted in protest at the reluctance of Margaret Thatcher’s government to tackle apartheid. As if that were not bad enough, the Games were budgeted chaotically and ended up costing the city millions after a phantom financing intervention by Robert Maxwell.
Were the Great Fraudster around today, his chequebook would be of little appeal to Glasgow 2014, whose overspend is on course to be relatively minimal. The Games budget is £563million, roughly £200m more than the organisers intended but not for any obviously unjustifiable reasons. As these projects go, this is not overly bloated and it has been sensibly pitched from the start.
In fact, Glasgow 2014 have done well to dress the wounds of numerous big-name athletes pulling out and the no-nonsense refusal of the cityfolk to let them dynamite a row of tower blocks live during the opening ceremony. With all of that overcome, only politics, perhaps, can spoil the party.