Tom Peck: Here is the real independence issue. On its own, without the economies of scale that built Team GB, Scotland will be awful at sport


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The Independent Online

No currency... no borders... no real idea on such trivial matters as general problem. It’ll all work itself out, won’t it? Remember Little Angus and Elspeth MacTout off The Family Ness? They made it safely through the early 1980s with just their magic Thistle Whistles and there’s no reason to imagine an independent Scotland can’t do the same.

But there’s one fact you cannot afford to ignore up there, and that’s the important one, the one that people actually care about.

On your own, Scotland, you are crap at sport. Not, like, actual crap. Not Andorra crap, and don’t be cross, because it’s not your own fault, either.

It’s because everything’s changed. Since some time probably in the mid 90s and the rise of the sports science degree and the “key performance indicator”, and some actual research into things like nutrition (never your strongest suit), even the most nominally amateur of sports are run like businesses. And, Scotland, your business is too small to succeed.

There is no shortage of indices through which to benchmark Scottish success – the panda/Tory MP population matrix has been a popular one – but this column draws your attention to postboxes.

Specifically, gold ones. Of the 110 postboxes painted gold by the Royal Mail, in honour of TeamGB’s gold medal winning athletes at London 2012, nine are in Scotland. On a per capita basis, that’s almost where it should be, give or take.


But somewhere in our infinite universe is, in theory, a planet just like Earth, with just the tiniest difference. There, out in the distant cosmos, Scotland had an independence referendum in 2010, and went off on its own before the London Olympics. How many gold postboxes are north of the border there?

Well, technically, none, because it wouldn’t have been a home Games for Team Scotland so Royal Mail wouldn’t have bothered, but let’s say it was just done as a gesture. One, is the answer. One solitary golden postbox, on Dunblane High Street, courtesy of Andy Murray. That’s your lot.

Yes, with no Scottish input there’d be a lot fewer south of the border too, but we’d cope. You lot on the other hand – all your rowers and cyclists, canoe slalomers and showjumpers – you’d never have had a sniff of glory.

And that, you have to think, would be wholly unfair. They’re a talented bunch – Chris Hoy, Kat Grainger, Scott Brash, Tim Baillie, the list goes on. Winners, all of them, and there are others like them up there right now, unfortunate children of a nation seriously flirting with the prospect of choosing to be losers of their own free will.

Most shamefully of all, in an independent Scotland the poorest people will pay the English to beat them at sport. Scotland’s low earners are among the wider nation’s keenest buyers of lottery tickets. But as things stand, post-independence, Scotland will get back only its per capita share.

That means the newly de-saltired Team GB will actually be funded by Scottish lottery players’ cash.

“Oh, never mind,” says Joan from Dundee, as her six midweek lucky dips get her absolutely nowhere, yet again. “At least I’m paying for Team Scotland to get beaten by the Brits in Rio.”

Yes, Scottish athletes will still get the same levels of funding post-independence, that’s been assured; but even the Scottish authorities have admitted a sizeable  per-capita boost would be needed for their athletes to carry on competing at the top level. In short, they won’t.

The money might be there, but the economies of scale won’t be.

Sir Chris Hoy remembers only too well what the British cycling team was like before the lottery money arrived. Him and Jason Queally, prodigiously talented, but without the investment to match it. Scotland could match the baseline figures, for sure, but all that research, all those marginal gains so beloved of Team GB’s talismanic cycling coach Dave Brailsford would be Scotland’s to enjoy no more.

There was an advert not that long ago for a famous sporting manufacturer that’s worth re-watching. It charts the lives of four young men who, in their youth, had come extremely close to buying that crucial pair of football boots, but chose to squander the money on something else.

The first was a man called Peter Schmeichel, cheerfully employed as a Danish pig farmer. Then there was a Welshman by the name of Ryan Giggs, wistfully selling flowers at the roadside. Dennis Bergkamp, meanwhile, seemed to love his long afternoons juggling Edam in a cheese factory. Only Andy Cole, a Nottingham chip-shop assistant, seemed bitter about how life had turned out.

If you’re Scottish, you enjoy winning Olympic medals, and you’re thinking about voting Yes, then have a watch on YouTube. As you do so, try and imagine a polite young man called Hoy, pedalling his way through the driving Glasgow rain on his way to yet another Butlers in the Buff gig, where he knows his pulsating thighs will again be stroked and stretched, squeezed by yet another drunken bride-to-be’s cackling mother-in-law-to-be, before the long cycle home again. He was destined for better than that, you know.

In the real advert, it’s a cold night, and Andy Cole stands, bucket in hand, in the door of the chippy.

“I was going to buy a new pair of Reebok boots. But my friends talked me into buying a giant firework instead,” he says. “What’s it called? Peer-group pressure?”

He turns his gaze skyward. “It went straight up in the air. Whoosh. Bang.”

Scotland, if you go through with it next week, at least enjoy the fireworks. That’ll be real Olympic gold exploding in the air up there.