A sporting chance?

Chris Hoy promoting sport

Hands up for sport

by Patrick Small

Happy Andy Murray Day. It’s exactly a year since the eruption of joy as Murray raised the Wimbledon trophy aloft on that magnificent sunny afternoon. Most of us know where we were when Djokovic’s return hit the net chord on championship point and the party kicked off. Murray means a great deal to Scotland and his legacy can still be harnessed in the cause of social change.

His rise coincided with the decline of the Scottish football team, charged with breathing life into the dream of a dashing, dazzling Scotland long after they had ceased to be able to do any such thing. We were struggling in other sports too. We were also-rans in international competition, and no-one knew what to do about that.

So here was this gangly man-child from Dunblane, lifting the US Open Junior trophy in 2004, and looking very much like what the Americans call the real deal. At 15, Murray had relocated to a reputable tennis academy in Barcelona, learning his trade with the best clay court players in Europe, Djokovic and Nadal amongst them. It showed. He soared up the rankings. By 2008, he was the world’s fourth best tennis player, a position he held for the following three years. By 2012, he was Number 3 – testament to an epic talent and work rate.

The traits that made Murray such a success – righteous stubbornness, hard work and innate, mesmeric ability – are qualities most Scots fancy themselves as having in abundance, even as we sit munching crisps in front of the TV. Yet the further Murray got to the summit of the game, the more he couldn’t quite cross the line and win a prestigious Grand Slam. He lost four Grand Slam finals in a row.

So the narrative changed, tapping into our worst fears about ourselves. Murray was at best a bottler, a nearly man. Deep down we knew we were duffers, uniquely capable of fashioning failure from the most promising situations. Murray’s failure to win a slam just confirmed it. He was the Caledonian Antisyzygy made flesh.

Still more pulverising disappointment awaited in the Wimbledon final of 2012; easily beaten by Federer, Murray fought back post-match tears.

Many players might have been crushed by that. But Ivan Lendl urged Murray on. At the Olympics, he won gold, finally vanquishing Federer on the Wimbledon grass. From there, he marched on to cathartic victory at the US Open, the first “British” man to win a grand slam for over 70 years.

All this was the back-story carved in the public imagination on that spellbinding day last July when Murray strode onto Centre Court, delivered a performance of swashbuckling bravado, and won the biggest prize in tennis. God loves a trier, and all the world seemed to delight in Murray’s achievement. A reporter asked a woman on the street in Dunblane for her reaction. “It’s fantastic” she beamed. “It means that now when people think of Dunblane, we’ll be known for something else.”

My guess is that Andy Murray will return stronger after exiting this year’s Wimbledon at the quarter finals. He has the tenacity and talent to deliver more Slams, more days in the sun.  But it’s worth considering how Scotland can capitalise on having produced a Wimbledon champion. Those looking for the “new Andy Murray” will be disappointed. There isn’t a Scottish player in the men’s game who looks like breaking the top 100 anytime soon.

Last year, the Tennis Scotland, the sport’s governing body, announced £5.8 million to invest in the game over four years. It looks like a decent game plan to promote community tennis, upgrade courts in public parks and develop indoor centres. Still, it’s peanuts compared to the millions generated by Wimbledon. Tennis Scotland say the number of people playing tennis in Scotland numbers has leapt since 2008. They say they’re taking the game beyond the leafy suburbs and into deprived urban areas, and point to a posse of promising kids at Under 14 level.

Fine as it is, Tennis Scotland’s plan reveals the choice that has to be made on the back of the Murray feel-good factor: are we to spend resources cultivating a new generation of elite athletes capable of competing at the top of the game, or focus on massively increasing participation to offset Scotland’s depressing public health record? Looking at the Scottish government’s most recent statistics for obesity alone, the answer seems clear. In 2012, 31.6% of Scotland’s children were classed as overweight or obese. Amongst adults 64.3% in Scotland aged 16 or over were overweight or obese. (Source here.)  The figures mirrored those of 2011. The pattern has hardly changed in years, and will only worsen if nothing is done. Against this background, increasing participation in tennis as part of a wider health policy must be worth considering.

One in five of Scotland’s children now live in poverty. In some areas, it’s as high as one in three. Last week official 2012/13 child poverty statistics for Scotland revealed that 30,000 more children are now living in poverty. John Dickie, of the Child Poverty Action Group said: “These figures mark the turning of the tide on child poverty as UK Government tax and benefit policies slash family income at the same time as wages stagnate”.

How do we answer this? A few weeks ago, the Scottish government published a report “Giving children and young people a sporting chance.”  If you can wade through the jargon, it begins to pull together some of the policy strands which need to come together to be effective.

The report’s authors asked 3,000 children in Scotland about sport and how they used it. One of the report’s contributors’, the Children’s Commissioner, made a short animation airing children’s views on sport. Children knew sport facilities weren’t always open. There wasn’t always someone to take them; if it was too far away, they had to get the bus, and they didn’t have the money.

All of which takes us into economics. The point has been well-made by the Common Weal that placing the market at the centre of our politics does not work, and will never deliver the social goods Scots want. And a move away from market-driven economics can only come with political power, through Yes.

Thereafter it can’t be business as usual, with the same old compromises and recurrent failures. We need to look again at the poverty of life chances in Scotland. We need ideas that reshape everything from diet to schools, employment to exercise, urban planning, access to sports facilities and much else. We need to kick McDonalds and Coke out of all our schools.

By winning Wimbledon, Andy Murray changed the way we see ourselves. That he had laboured so long and tried so hard made it all the sweeter. There was irony in seeing a Scottish victor on the quintessentially English Wimbledon lawns, with all its echoes of Empire, just as his country debated leaving for a brighter day. But it may have been a one-off achievement, and something of a luxury. We need to ensure that our children are not poor, fat and alienated before we concentrate on producing another world-class tennis champion.



Categories: Commentary

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11 replies

  1. “Most of us know where we were when Djokovic’s return hit the net chord on championship point and the party kicked off.”

    Apart from that coming across as a gross (in all senses of the word) generalisation, I’m actually pretty pleased not to be listed among the “most of us”.

    “Murray means a great deal to Scotland and his legacy can still be harnessed in the cause of social change.”

    To paraphrase another tennis player, you cannot be serious!

    I have never understood–indeed, I’ve often been worried by–the desire of so many people to express their national pride (be it Scottish, British or whatever) through the success or failure of others engaged in a variety of sports–most obviously football.

    Why can’t we be proud of what we achieve ourselves, rather than pathetically piggy-backing ourselves on the otherwise well-rewarded antics of sportsmen and women?

    • As sport is now just a branch of big business I would rather see Scots winning Nobel prizes and the like. That is where the real and lasting “kudos” lies. Historically, Scotland punched well above its weight in science and technology, a future iScotland should more than match that.

  2. In my blog ‘Mrs Scotland a Victim of Domestic Abuse?’ I touched on the theory of ‘Learned Helplessness in The National Psyche’ The theory that as victims of domestic abuse can in some instances, due to constant never ending emotional battering, subconsciously engineer situations rendering them incapable of making the correct decision to escape the abuse.
    Could this theory be transferred to Nations?
    Look at the Scottish Football and Rugby Teams. So much potential and yet there is always something – a missed sitter, a crucial penalty given away, a silly missed pass in Rugby when it would seem so much easier to score a try etc etc ad infinitum.
    Glorious Failure – A term uniquely employed to describe Scottish sporting achievements.
    So could Independence transform our sporting stars?

    From Wikipedia.

    Costa Rica was sparsely inhabited by indigenous people before it came under Spanish rule in the 16th century. Once a poor and isolated colony, since becoming independent in the 19th century, Costa Rica has become one of the most stable, prosperous, and progressive nations in Latin America. It constitutionally abolished its army permanently in 1949, becoming the first and one of the few sovereign nations without a standing army.[7][8][9] Costa Rica has consistently been among the top-ranking Latin American countries in the Human Development Index (HDI), placing 62nd in the world as of 2012.[6]

    In 2010 Costa Rica was cited by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as having attained much higher human development than other countries at the same income levels,[10] while in 2011, the UNDP also identified it as a good performer on environmental sustainability, with a better record on human development and inequality than the median of their region.

    Costa Rica is known for its progressive environmental policies, being the only country to meet all five criteria established to measure environmental sustainability.[11] It is ranked fifth in the world, and first among the Americas, in terms of the 2012 Environmental Performance Index.[12] In 2007, the Costa Rican government announced plans for Costa Rica to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021.[13][14][15] The New Economics Foundation (NEF) ranked Costa Rica first in its 2009 Happy Planet Index, and once again in 2012.[16][17] The NEF also ranked Costa Rica in 2009 as the greenest country in the world.[18] In 2012, Costa Rica became the first country in the Americas to ban recreational hunting after the country’s legislature approved the popular measure by a wide margin.[19][20]

    Costa Rica is one of only fifteen countries in the world that have no armed forces.

    Looking at their exploits in the World Cup, I would say case proved beyond any reasonable doubt

  3. I can’t be arsed with your full title as you can see i use my real name .what a uplifting comment what indeed inspired you to take the time to rubbish what was a after all just a comment on the inspiration might give to youngsters regarding the piggy back well thats what happens all over why isn’t it available to us are we so different .usually i really wont waste the time with comments like yours but over the past few weeks i am getting fed up with the petty snipers posing as supporters of a “YES” vote to make what is really a pointless comment just a thought mind how you go now

  4. I find a great deal of analogy between blacks in America, suppressed for hundreds of years, and Scots in the UK, suppressed for hundreds of years. Blacks in America are just beginning to realise their potential in business, arts and politics (capping it with a black President – no matter how badly he’s run the country). There is still too much “piggy-backing” on musicians, celebrities and, especially, athletes. I find this analogy with Scots to hold true. Scots, mentally abused for years, find ANY winning Scottish athlete and jump for joy. It’s nice he’s Scottish, yes. But what about Adam Smith, Keir Hardie, Alexander Graham Bell, Carnegie, and all the hundreds of un-named businessmen and women who make a success every day in Scotland? Why don’t Scots worship them? Why don’t Scots have an overwhelming pride in their accomplishments and advertise that in the media?

  5. I hope I don’t pee you off Robert! You are certainly to the point and I love that. For my part I am going to take the view that Paul was just making what I see as the valid point that we need to encourage all Scots to value and take pride in their own unique contribution to the world. That needn’t take away from the inspiration that people like Andy Murray can offer us.

    I will put the cat among the pigeons by saying that I hope Andy Murray will make a public statement that he is supporting the Yes campaign.

  6. Reblogged this on Are We Really Better Together? and commented:
    I couldn’t agree more with the final line of this article.

    I am on my way to being a sport and exercise scientist with a vision of helping to improve the health of as many people as I can through diet and exercise rather than medicine and surgery. But despite all we know about the benefits of a good diet and regular exercise, the single biggest threat to a person’s health is not whether they smoke, whether they are overweight or how much exercise they take, but how poor they are. The poor die younger than the not-poor.

    Vote Yes to at least give those who want to tackle poverty a fighting chance. Who cares about winning Wimbledon if a single child is growing up destitute in Scotland?

  7. Thatcher is responsible for the lack of sporting facilities in many of our schools.
    The policy of selling off these assets in order to ‘balance the books’ was enacted by too many Scottish councils and is partly responsible for the poor health we currently see in many of our children.
    As far as poor performances by our national football team goes,I blame Jock Stein.
    Jock decided that our cultural affinity for all out attacking football had to stop after the 1978 debacle in Argentina and that we had to become defence minded.
    I hope Gordon Strachan continues with his attempts to correct this error and we see more glorious defeats (or success) rather than tame submission in future.

  8. ‘Net chord’? That should be ‘cord’. A chord is something you play on a musical instrument.

  9. ‘He lost five Grand Slam finals in a row.’ No he didn’t. He lost his first four (US Open, Aussie Open twice, and Wimbledon). His fifth Grand Slam final was when he defeated Djokovic in five sets at the US Open.

  10. You make some really interesting points and the comments interesting as always. Sport and games are great. I have been lucky enough to play rotten tennis for years and have enjoyed every minute in Oz. When I was growing up poor I wanted to play tennis and was not allowed on courts till me and my pal at 15yrs. hired some in Queens Park. I loved all these activities and was average at most of them. My health is excellent lucky me for it was not the opportunities of a Glaswegian upbringing with cauld damp houses and never quite enough to eat and that’s just for starters. Poverty is soul destroying. Vote Yes and give the poor children a chance and I’m sure we’ll see more Andy Murray’s Keir Hardies Catherine Carswell Margaret Oliphant James Lister and on and on. Yes the Scots need to reclaim their heritage all of it and Yes would surely kick start that and who knows maybe the world cup one day?

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