Few gold medals for political patriotism at London's Olympiad

Few gold medals for political patriotism at London's Olympiad

by David Torrance
article from Monday 16, July, 2012

SPORT, TO BE BLUNT, leaves me cold. Despite having grown up near Easter Road and lived as a student within earshot of Pittodrie, football was my first hate rather than my first love.

I'm also not religious, yet I'm interested in the political and cultural impact of religion. The same is true of sport: something which preoccupies many of my friends and family, not to mention perhaps the majority of fellow countrymen, is obviously important.

Thus recent sporting events have been of interest even to me, particularly in the context of the constitutional debate: football and rugby matches now take on a heightened significance - and don't forget the problems, symbolic and financial, faced by Rangers.

And Andy Murray. Tennis, like football, leaves me cold, but I found myself ruminating over what a Murray victory would have meant for the 'yes' vote: would a surge in Scottish confidence - deftly harnessed by the First Minister - have boosted the Nationalist cause?

Some observers certainly believe the Commonwealth Games, coinciding as they do with referendum year, will provide a useful backdrop for those campaigning for a 'yes' vote.

I suspect that's overstating the impact of what used, after all, to be known as the Empire Games, but the Olympics, I think, are a different matter.

The Nationalists, I think it's safe to say, were wrong footed on this one. For months the SNP have been issuing press releases which were less than positive about the "London" 2012 Olympics. Scotland, the general argument ran, isn't getting enough out of it.

Yet little of this gained much traction. A rather crude attempt to depict a global event as an elite London event penalising Scotland did not resonate - in as much as I can judge it - with the public mood.

On the contrary, the Olympic Torch relay - in Scotland as in the rest of the UK - was an enormous success. One only had to watch local news coverage to gauge that. It appeared to act as a binding symbol, not just between Scots and the Games, but between the different nations and regions of the UK.

I suspect the SNP weren't expecting that, and who could blame them? The Diamond Jubilee celebrations, such as they were, were muted in Scotland; there was no reason to suspect an Olympic torch would enthuse where bunting and street parties did not.

Factor in Chris Hoy (famously dismissive last time round of the notion of a Scottish team contesting the Olympics) and it doesn't add up to a political opportunity worth exploiting (and yes, I'm aware that was a particularly cynical sentence).

I was reminded of all this while watching David Puttnam's 1981 film, Chariots of Fire, at a Leicester Square cinema last night. Rereleased to cash in on this year's Olympics, it stands the test of time, even with the anachronistic Vangelis soundtrack.

It also has a subtly Nationalist subtext. From almost the opening scenes England and the English are depicted as class-ridden and rather unpleasant, while Scotland - through Edinburgh and the Highlands - is portrayed as classless and warm.

Both protagonists, intriguingly, are outsiders. Harold Abrahams is a Jew, sneered at even by his Cambridge College porter, while Eric Liddell is a god-fearing Scot, raised in the Orient and committed to a missionary career.

The 1924 Paris Olympics, however, brings both men together under the same flag, and both triumph, even when Liddell infuriates the Prince of Wales et al by refusing to take part in qualifying heats on a Sunday.

While Liddell sees his extraordinary speed as an extension of his devotion to God, Abrahams views it as his passport to true "Englishness". The Scottish actor Ian Holm, meanwhile, plays another outsider, Abrahams' Italian-Arab trainer, Sam Mussabini.

So what of this year's Olympics? As a resident of London I'm shuddering at the thought (foreign travel, however, means I'll escape most of it). I suspect Scots - and of course Brits - will win a few medals, and while it's unlikely to significantly boost the "anti-independence" campaign, nor will it do it any harm.

For I suspect the proportion of Scots who genuinely desire a separate national team competing - as in the Commonwealth Games - in the world's greatest athletics competition is pretty small. That even the SNP is no longer promoting such an idea tells its own story.


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