29 gold, 17 silver and 19 bronze – it was quite an Olympics for Team GB. With medal winners from every corner of the United Kingdom, London 2012 will be remembered as the Olympics when athletes overcame statistics, history and personal hoodoos to lift Team GB to third in the medal table behind two countries a combined 80 times the size of Great Britain. Mo Farah became the first Brit to win gold in the 10,000 and 5000 metres. Bradley Wiggins followed up doubts about his fitness and recovery time by becoming the first man in history to win the Tour de France and Olympic gold in the same month. Andy Murray exorcised memories of his Wimbledon final defeat with a comprehensive straight sets victory over Roger Federer. With a combined six gold medals, Sir Chris Hoy became the most celebrated Olympic British athlete in history.
Out of all this jubilation came a series of interesting facts about the makeup of Team GB. One third of the medallists came from private schools, despite fee-paying schools only educating 7% of the population. Team GB win more gold medals in events where athletes sit, rather than stand. If Scotland were competing as a separate country, it would be an incredible 12th in the medal tables. Allowing for population size, it would be in the top five.
It’s the kind of statistic that validates the efforts of the Campaign for a Scottish Olympic Team. A pressure group set up to promote sporting independence from the rest of Britain, it claims that in 2005 78% of Scotland wanted a national Olympic team. Following the high-profile success of Scottish athletes at the Games, that number is surely set to rise.
The notion that this success could be achieved in isolation, however, is misleading. Of the 13 Scottish medals won at the Olympics, 12 of them came from athletes currently living in England. 10 medals were won with the help of a non-Scottish teammate. Most pertinently of all, every Scottish medal winner trained at a UK Governing Body Facility, and only Andy Murray is involved in a sport that isn’t funded by National Lottery money.
It’s possible that these medals could have been won if the athletes lived in Scotland and that Chris Hoy, David Florence and Luke Patience all could have won their treasured medals with just Scottish teammates. It’s not as if sporting facilities in this country are so out-dated as to be useless in the pursuit of sporting glory. The strong indication though, is that collectively, we are greater than the sum of our parts and it was a nationwide contribution that aided Team GB in achieving their best medal return since 1908. As Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony celebrated the best of Britishness in a cultural celebration that included Trainspotting, Gregory’s Girl, a match-winning try against England, a rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland’, Emeli Sandé singing ‘Abide with Me’ and Chris Hoy leading out Team GB while waving the Union flag, it was hard not to argue with the anti-independence credo, ‘Better Together.’
The opening ceremony would have made interesting viewing in the company of Alex Salmond. Unable to mention Team GB in his good luck message to Scotland’s athletes, he instead wished our ‘Scolympians’ the very best of luck in the Olympics. After the 2008 Olympics, he congratulated Scotland’s medal winners without referring to the success of athletes from other parts of Britain, and without acknowledging their assistance in helping Scotland’s athletes realise their own dreams.
Although Salmond may have been indignant over the Union flags, cross-country participation and endless repeats of ‘God Save the Queen’, he may have been buoyed by the way a major sporting event can help foster feelings of nationalist fervor. Britain may have thrown off the shackles of a negative, vicious nationalism and embraced a new wave of multicultural patriotism best represented by the success of Somali-born Mo Farah, but there’s no reason to think that this feel-good fever is going to have a detrimental effect on the SNP’s plan for independence in 2014. In fact, Salmond has both the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the Ryder Cup in Gleneagles to refocus Scotland’s mindset on independence and fulfill his desire to have a separate Scottish team at Rio 2016.
If Salmond is to use the Commonwealth Games as a vehicle with which to push Scottish independence, it will be part of a long tradition of host nations attempting to use spoting events for political advancement. 2004 saw Sydney use the Olympic Games to demonstrate the happy co-habitation between Aborigines and non-Indigenous Australians, and Beijing in 2008 used the Games to stake their claim as the world’s new superpower with an extravagant display of their size and power. The opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games could be used similarly to illustrate Glasgow and Scotland’s rich and illustrious history, contribution to world science and diverse cultural heritage. The country could be depicted as a place that has achieved much without the shackles of English rule. It would endorse the opposite belief endorsed by the Olympic opening ceremony – that separately, we are much better.
It may be folly to suggest that independence may be won or lost during a sporting event, but in the city of Rangers and Celtic we know all about how sport can become intertwined with politics. The opportunity for 11 days of saltire-waving and passionate, stadium-rousing renditions of ‘Flower of Scotland’ could help notions of separation enter the patriotic zeitgeist. In the Commonwealth Games, unlike in the Olympics, Scotland will be allowed to compete separately. Since the International Olympic Committee does not recognize non-sovereign nations as separate entities, it would take Independence for Scotland to have a fully-fledged Olympic team. Don’t underestimate the role of a man cycling round a track or a woman jumping off a diving board to Salmond reaching this dream.