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Column: Without Scotland, not so great Britain

Column: Without Scottish athletes, Great Britain won't live up to that name

By John Leicester, The Associated Press

PARIS – After 26 years guiding Manchester United, Alex Ferguson knows better than most that one should always think very, very carefully before breaking up a winning team. Perhaps that helps explain why he donated money to the campaign urging voters in his native Scotland to say “No” to independence in the historic ballot this week.

Because, when teamed together in sports — notably at the Olympics — Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish athletes are proven winners, often a world-beating combination. Britain’s most decorated Olympian is a Scot, track cyclist Chris Hoy. Fact is, if the Scots pull out, what remains of Team Great Britain won’t be quite so great.

The future of sports in Scotland and how competitive it might be as an independent nation probably won’t be foremost on voters’ minds on Thursday. They have got bigger questions — Can we keep the pound sterling? Remain in the United Nations, the European Union and NATO? Finance and defend ourselves? — to weigh in the potential break-up of their 307-year-old union with England.

Some athletes may jump at the chance to compete with the Saltire, the Scottish flag, on their jerseys and hear “Flower of Scotland” played at medal ceremonies.

“We believe very strongly that the prize of being an athlete competing for the first time for Team Scotland in the Olympics and Paralympics will be something that is hard to resist for the vast majority of athletes,” said pro-independence Scottish politician Shona Robison. Robison, who also serves as the Scottish government’s minister for sport, was speaking in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

But for Scots teamed with non-Scots, who get British funding and train in England with non-Scots coaches, unpicking such links could be tough. Athletes won’t be forced to join Team Scotland, so some may prefer to stick with the status quo in Team GB if they can, as the easier and possibly safer option.

Take Luke Patience, one of Britain’s top Olympic sailors. Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, his partner in the 470 class of dinghies is Elliot Willis, from Kent in southern England.

They are competing this week at the world championships in Spain, a qualifying event for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Patience won Olympic silver teamed with another Englishman, Stuart Bithell, at the 2012 London Games. As a potential top competitor for Team GB in 2016, Patience also gets a slice of the £25 million pounds (US$40 million) Britain’s funding body for elite sport allotted to sailing to harvest more medals in Rio.

Would Patience give up all this to represent an independent Scotland? He wouldn’t comment. “Sorry it is not something that I wish to speak about during my worlds. Perhaps afterwards,” he said, responding to the AP by Twitter.

Still, it sounds anything but a straightforward choice.

“GB has a lot more strength than Scotland does, just from pure numbers,” said Susan Egelstaff, who competed in badminton both for Scotland and, at the London Games, for Team GB. She, too, spoke to the AP in a phone interview.

“If I was in a team with English people, I’d be worried about Scotland going independent,” she said.

And if Scots become Olympic adversaries, instead of allies, would English coaches still work and share training secrets with them? One of the coaching wizards behind all six of Hoy’s Olympic golds — from Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008 and in London — was an Englishman who grew up in Wales, Dave Brailsford. He oversaw the so-called “marginal gains” philosophy that helped turn British cyclists into Olympic champions — the idea being that many small improvements, even minutiae like making athletes wash their hands properly to prevent illness, can all add up to big performance gains.

Hoy is retired. When the next Hoy comes along, it would be self-defeating for Team GB to help him or her, or any Scottish adversary, if they’re going to compete for an independent Scotland.

“A lot of Scottish athletes train down south. Would that be open to them if Scotland became independent, if Scotland was a separate country?” asked Egelstaff. “You would guess England probably wouldn’t be quite as accommodating.”

Robison argued against concerns that athletes in an independent Scotland could want for funding, coaching and facilities, vowing: “We will make sure that our athletes absolutely receive the support that they require to enable them to compete at the highest level.”

Just since World War II, Britain has collected more than 400 medals at the summer Olympics, dozens of them won by Scots. That’s a rich history of shared achievement and emotion.

For those growing up south of the border, it will barely have registered that the likes of Allan Wells, 100 metres champion at the 1980 Moscow Games, or swimming triple medallist David Wilkie were Scots. To many Britons, they were simply British champions. And the story of flying Scotsman Eric Liddell, 400-meter champion in 1924, will have moved anyone who watched “Chariots of Fire,” not simply movie-goers north of the border.

Sporting success makes countries feel good about themselves. The same will be true for Scotland if it becomes independent. Scottish medallists in Rio or later games will be nation-builders. For this reason, if Scotland votes “Yes,” we should all wish them well.

“The history, whether that’s sporting or otherwise, that has been shared is not something we want to dismiss in any way. It’s just that we want, going forward, to start a new period, a new story, a new chapter of Scotland’s future,” said Robison.

Because this would be a peaceful separation, without the bloodshed that divided other nations and led to the likes of Serbia or Croatia now fielding separate Olympic teams, it would be nice to think that Britons would still cheer for their Scottish cousins, at least for old times’ sake.

Unless, of course, they’re competing against Britain.

___

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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