Performance Sport Beyond Borders
(Written 29 March 2021)
On Friday night I watched a phenomenal performance by the Scotland men's rugby team. An edge of the seat, or should I say pacing round the living room, game, where they defeated a French team ranked third in the world. So first things first I am definitely no expert on the game of rugby, despite having watched the game for years at club, university and international level. I guess I take an interest in it, and many other sports for that matter, from a holistic, sports development perspective. Taking interest in how a team performance reflects: the structures and ethos of the organisation as a whole; the leadership on and off the field of play; the resources available to the organisation, whether that be players, coaches, or facilities; and a myriad of other things. Watching local clubs I have always been interested in how clubs develop players and also promote the sport beyond their members. At university level it could be the ethos of the club from season to season and what coaching they had in place - in some cases minimal, that interested me. In the case of higher level performance teams and international teams my curiosity has lead me to question "where does their talent come from" as they strive to be the best team in the country or indeed the world. I have to say this piece is going to pose far more questions than answers but hopefully it will be a little thought provoking for the handful of readers. In the 29 man squad named for Friday night's game a quick Wikipedia search showed me only 15 of them were educated in Scotland the rest elsewhere England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. This isn't a dig at Scotland by the way, plenty of other top international teams have this, whether it be players with their roots from the nation's mentioned or other countries such as the Pacific Islands. World Rugby's change in rules regarding residency and eligibility to play for a country changing from 3 to 5 years will undoubtedly make some difference to this in due course.
Hamish Watson born in Manchester, England, played for Wilmslow and Leicester Tigers at youth level. Being educated in Scotland is an indicator that these players have developed through the pathways and systems put in place by the Scottish Rugby Union. So in this case half the squad learnt their skills; fell in love with the sport; were nurtured and developed elsewhere in the world. However of interest to me is not the rugby specifics of this but instead a broader view of high performance sport and it's knock on effect to youth participation in competitive sport. GB Snowsport is currently on a massive push to find GB qualified athletes across the world. In athletics there are many individual cases of athletes changing nationality, often to countries like Qatar but sometimes to nations like the UK as well. Dual nationality alpine ski racer, Romed Baumann, competed for Austria until two years ago, now aged 35 and racing for Germany, he took silver in the World championships Super G this year. I'm sure there are many other examples of this but these are just some of the cases that spring to mind. I guess the first question is, does any of this matter? Is this a case of the ultimate performance, the medals, trumping everything else? Does the success that the nation has on the world stage truly reflect the nation and the state of the sport in question in that country? Does it matter if the national systems and strategies to develop young athletes are actually working? Whether that be programmes for the age groups, regions or home nations. Is the world of high performance sport going to be increasingly, reserved for either, the middle and upper classes who seek out and can afford the correct private programmes early on, or those that can easily relocate from country to country. Is it just that top nations like the case of New Zealand and South Africa in rugby or Austria in Alpine Ski racing simply produce too many world class athletes than what they need or can field, so the surplus can move elsewhere. Is it ok because for national governing bodies it's all about being as high up the world rankings as possible? Maybe it's ok because it raises the standard for those that come through the Scottish or British systems, raising the bar for the home grown talent so they can become truly world class. In the case of GB Snowsport, arguably, they're playing the long term money game. Get the best athletes they can in and representing GB, get the results, earn more funding, support the system. Is it ethically fair for the British grafters coming from a dry slope in the UK or the slopes of Scotland to loose spots on teams, funding for their programmes or major competition spots to those have developed themselves through another nations resources and systems? Is it ok because, well it's high performance sport, and all that matters is medals. The positive effect having relatable role models has to children and young athletes is undeniable. In the North East, understanding that Kirsty Muir did and does develop her skills at Aberdeen Snowsports Centre, that Hannah Miley has spent thousands of hours developing herself in a non Olympic sized swimming pool in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, or that former Scotland rugby players Chris Cusiter and Ruaridh Jackson did fall in love with rugby and learn their skills at Robert Gordon's College, surely makes a difference. Children can see these world class achievements are possible by children from their own neighbourhood. Belief that "it is possible" is a crucial component before we can expect young athletes to commit the hours of training time to be world class in any sport. Maybe ultimately it is a blend of home grown talent and those from further afield that will work best for our national teams but in my opinion I think it is an area that needs careful consideration by sports administrators to ensure performance sport can remain an aspiration for children and young people in this country.