Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

A sporting chance – Ian Beattie

I am writing this while in Budapest, during the World Athletics Championships, where the greatest athletes in the world compete across the many disciplines of track and field.  While it is wonderful to see the pinnacle of athletics in action, the benefits of sport are far wider than the pride of winning medals at the elite level.  Participation is every bit as important, and has the potential to have a significantly positive impact on areas such as physical health, mental health, criminal justice, and the general wellbeing of Scotland as a country.  The importance of early intervention and prevention based policies are regularly highlighted by politicians.  It is, therefore, frustrating that despite the range of potential benefits, sport does not feature more highly on their agendas.

There has of course been a strong commitment over the last 20 years or so to bring high profile events to Scotland, and a recognition of the many benefits sports tourism can bring to this country.  Events such as the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the 2018 World Gymnastics championships, the 2019 European championships and 2023 World Cycling championships, plus others, have established Scotland’s reputation as premier player in sports event market.  A strong legacy has been one of the objectives of all of those events, but often the steps required to develop such a legacy have not been well understood.  A genuine legacy will only be achieved if sports are ready to spring into action when the demand is there; if they are not, those trying out the sport will not have a positive experience, and the opportunity will be lost.  Much of the work that allowed Scottish Athletics to benefit from the Commonwealth Games was carried out by Scottish athletics clubs in the two years prior to the event, after learning lessons from the London Olympics.  The foundations need to be in place long before the demand arises.

Scotland has a great love of sport.  The effect on the wellbeing of the country when our national teams are doing well is huge.  Should we not be harnessing some of this sporting love, and using it as a catalyst to improve outcomes in other areas?  I have an ambition to see a Scottish First Minister commit to an objective of Scotland being Europe’s ‘Sportiest Nation’ within the next 10 years.  The debate around the policies required to achieve would be fascinating.  Critically, how should we teach sport in our schools?  At the moment the private schools do this much more effectively than the state sector; they recognise that sport and physical education are not the same thing, and plan their curriculum to give students opportunities to experience both.  Rather than complain about the inequalities this creates, why do we not learn from the private schools and adopt this model in the state sector?  A Wednesday afternoon focusing on sport, for example?  It is no co-incidence that a disproportionately high number of our elite athletes come from the private schools, as their experience of sport is often significantly better.  There is no need to re-invent the wheel when a strong model is there, right in front of us.

Another area where I would question government policy is the desire to target investment at the communities which are hardest to reach.  While such an aim is laudable, it is very difficult to make any lasting impact in those areas, or to identify projects which have had any long-lasting success.  From my experience a more successful approach would be to target ongoing improvement; for example if 50% of the population are active now, the aim should be to increase that to 60%, and then 70%, and so on, until the harder to reach groups are actually within range.  Cultural change in our attitude to sport and fitness is needed, and this will only be achieved by a greater proportion of the population leading an active lifestyle.

Scotland has some excellent sport facilities across the country, and the natural landscape is a huge asset which lends itself perfectly to a range of outdoor activities.  It is disappointing to see that access to the outdoors has been threatened recently by landowners looking to charge for access to their land, particularly in respect of organised events, a number of which have been cancelled in areas like the Pentlands.  I would encourage the Scottish Government to address this as a priority, and make clear that free, responsible access to the outdoors is a fundamental principle of our outdoor access legislation which should not be compromised.

Sports provision is a non-statutory responsibility for our local authorities, which places it under increased pressure at times of financial challenge.  It also allows different local authorities to place different degrees of prioritisation on their investment levels, leading to significant differences in the quality of provision across the country.  If we are serious about the importance of sport, and its benefits to society as a whole, this has to change.

Ian Beattie is currently Chair of UK Athletics, and was Chair of Scottish Athletics from 2012 to 2021.  He was previously Vice Chair of Sportscotland, the national agency for sport, and Vice Chair of SAMH, the Scottish Association for Mental Health.  In 2020 he was awarded an MBE for services to athletics.

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