Tokyo Olympic Games (Team GB Success)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 8th September 2021.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The final item of business is a member’s business debate on motion S6M-00838, in the name of Brian Whittle, on team GB success. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises what it considers the incredible achievements of Team GB at the Tokyo Olympic Games in winning a total of 65 medals, the same number that Team GB won in the home Olympics at London 2012; recognises the Team GB administration and coaching staff who help to make the athletes’ experience the best it can be; considers that, behind every performance, there is the hard work of personal coaches, medical support, administrators and other support staff, many of whom are volunteers; believes that these performances would not be possible without the support of the National Lottery, UK Sport, sportscotland, national governing bodies, local authority facilities and many local clubs and volunteers, including in the South Scotland region, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to work towards greater opportunity for all to participate in sport, irrespective of background or personal circumstance, with a recognition that sport can be such a force for good.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Brian Whittle to open the debate. You have seven minutes, Mr Whittle. [Applause.]

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

Easy, easy. I must ask members to save their applause—I have a weak finish. [Laughter.]

I am delighted to bring this debate to the chamber. Indeed, I am hardly able to contain my excitement at the prospect of talking about all things sport for the next hour or so.

The Paralympic games have now concluded just after the Olympic games in Tokyo, and what a veritable feast it has been of all things sporty. We got to witness the prowess of the very best physical specimens that the human race has to offer. What can we say about the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team? It won 65 medals in the Olympics, finishing fourth in the medal table and, in the Paralympics, it won 124 medals and finished in an incredible second place. [Applause.]

Scotland was well represented and, in fact, made up more of the team than our comparative populations would suggest. Scots won medals in athletics, cycling, hockey, rowing, sailing and swimming. Moreover, for the first time, there were more women than men in the British Olympic team—well and truly smashing that glass ceiling.

While we are discussing Scottish women, I want to highlight Katie Archibald’s gold in the Madison in the velodrome. Other golds came in the pool, from Kathleen Dawson in the mixed 4x100m medley relay and Duncan Scott in the 4x200m freestyle relay. Duncan also became the first Briton to win four medals at a single games. Owen Miller won the men’s T20 1500m and Neil Fachie took gold in the men’s 1000m cycling time trial. I also give a shout-out to the indomitable Sam Kinghorn, who added two medals to her Paralympic haul on the track, while Gordon Reid added a further two medals to his collection in the wheelchair tennis.

At this point, I have to declare a bias when I tell the chamber that the medal that I celebrated most was Laura Muir’s silver in the 1500m. The field was absolutely stacked with the highest quality athletes, but she fought her way on to the podium in a global final at last, after so many attempts that came so close. Presiding Officer, you know me as a cool, calm and collected individual who is not given to outbursts of emotion, but when Laura came off that final bend, I was out of my seat and screaming at the television. In fact, I think that I might have hurt myself.

Laura Muir’s silver was well deserved in an event that is of the highest calibre globally. If members saw the work that she puts in day in, day out, they would perhaps understand what these athletes are prepared to put their bodies through to achieve their dreams. Her coach, Andy Young, also coached Jemma Reekie, who narrowly missed a medal when she came fourth in the 800m. That highlights the importance of athletes having a support network and training partners as they strive to achieve in the arena. I will come on to that topic shortly.

I must also mention Josh Kerr’s bronze medal in the 1500m, with a time that ranks him second in the UK all-time list. We should ponder that for a second—that is quicker than those track legends Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram. Only Mo Farah has run quicker. It is just astounding, and I should say that Josh was coached in the United States by an old friend of mine, Mark Rowland, himself a bronze medallist in the 1988 steeplechase.

However, the performance of the championships, by a country mile, was Norway’s Karsten Warholm and his astonishing obliteration of the world record in the 400m hurdles, in a time that would have won the UK 400m Olympic trial. A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting about this to the current British record holder, a certain Kriss Akabusi, and his take on it was that Warholm had shown him that, back in his day, they were only playing at the event—that is a bit harsh on Kriss, but I get his meaning.

The journey to the Olympic podium is a long one. It takes relentless dedication from athletes as they search for those fractions of fractions of seconds that are the difference between greatness and being back in the pack. We must not forget the coaches and volunteers in all the clubs across the country who give their time for free, the families who traipse across the country to ensure that athletes get to training and competitions, and the national governing bodies and local authorities that play a huge part in developing and maintaining facilities. Also important are sportscotland and its institute of sport, Scottish Disability Sport and the funding from the National Lottery, which was a game changer when it was introduced in 1997 after the GB and NI team’s disastrous 1996 Olympics.

We must also remember UK Sport, which is chaired by our own Kath Grainger, which funds the elite podium programme that all our elite sportsmen and sportswomen benefit from. The last time I looked, they had put £13 million directly into the programme in Scotland to allow those athletes to train full time. It takes all that and more. UK Sport’s investment in the development of bike technology, for example, helped Chris Hoy to win his six Olympic gold medals, and the same goes for boat technology in Kath Grainger’s case. It is all about seeking those incredibly small margins. The training camps around the world that our athletes have access to are all part of the jigsaw, too, and we also have to remember the input of doctors and physiotherapists, nutritionists, sports psychologists, sports physiologists and so on.

Getting selected for the GB and NI team is the very pinnacle of a sportsman or sportswoman’s career and it takes a long-term significant investment in terms of effort from the athlete and their backroom team—the people whom we do not see.

Scottish sport receives support from many sources, from local clubs all the way through to the lottery and UK Sport. We benefit enormously from the economy of scale of being part of the GB and Northern Ireland team.

Speaking of background support, I want to mention the sudden passing of one of Scotland’s true coaching heroes, Iain Robertson. Former director of coaching Frank Dick called me three Fridays ago to say that Iain had been diagnosed with cancer that day. We were utterly shocked to hear of his passing the following Thursday. Not only did Iain coach women to reach the Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth teams, he was instrumental in developing the modern coaching philosophy. He was an educator to many coaches in Scotland and the UK and changed women’s athletics when he had the vision to turn Maryhill Harriers into Glasgow City Athletics Club, which has been so successful in the UK women’s league. Iain was a true innovator and a lovely man. He taught me how to lift weights, which shows that he was a patient man. He will be desperately missed by his family and friends and the whole athletics community.

Sport is a force for good. We are waking up to the huge physical and mental benefits of being active and are starting to understand the positive contribution that physical activity can make towards educational attainment—including up to 40 per cent higher test scores for students—and the reduction in business staff turnover that sport can bring about. Those are just some of many positive statistics.

What matters is not training our children for sport, but educating them through sport, because sport is a vehicle for learning many skills, for social interaction, resilience, confidence and for tackling isolation and loneliness. Sport teaches young people to take the knocks, to fall short of expectation and to come back for more with greater determination. Those are skills that can seep into every aspect of their lives.

Very few will go on to take sport more seriously. It is not a level playing field. The Olympics and Paralympics are a shop window and marketing tool for sports participation, but children must be able to see it to do it. Too many community assets have been ripped out; opportunities to participate are becoming more remote. To see proof of that, look at the make-up of the GB and NI team. A disproportionate number were privately educated. That is not a slight on those educational establishments, but we should be looking at the opportunities that are afforded in those schools and seeing how we can replicate those across all of education.

Sport also has a significant part to play in preventing the lure of addiction. Covid has taught us how health impacts the economy. If we want to grow our economy, we have to tackle our poor health record. Sport has a significant part to play there and has a role in tackling the attainment gap.

Given the money that we spend on health and education, sport in Scotland is chronically underfunded. There is a better way. We should be utilising all the community facilities that are available to us—especially the school estate—and ensuring that our national governing bodies and councils are funded to deliver sports locally.

It will take a real paradigm shift if we are finally to use sport to make the difference that it can make. We talk all the time about opportunity for all, irrespective of background or personal circumstances, but not enough is being done on the ground. It is time to get serious about sport and its benefits. I do not see that as being in any way party political: we should all want to be part of that conversation.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I thank Mr Whittle for the timely reminder that we gentlemen of a certain age should take care when getting in and out of chairs too quickly.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and congratulate Brian Whittle on securing it. He has outlined the number of medals won by our Olympians and has name-checked many of our outstanding team members.

I congratulate team GB on their outstanding achievements at Tokyo 2020. Olympic captain Dina Asher-Smith and Paralympic captain Jim Roberts led their teams to great success. Their achievements in a range of sports cannot be understated and every athlete can take pride in the inspiration that they provide to people across Scotland.

The idea behind the modern Olympics, as expressed by the International Olympics Committee, is

“the elevation of the mind and soul, overcoming differences between nationalities and cultures, embracing friendship, a sense of solidarity, and fair play; ultimately leading to the contribution towards world peace”.

Brian Whittle has clearly outlined the positives for health and education that sport brings, but as well as supporting positive health and wellbeing, we need to support the international forum focusing on sport, which rightly strives to build relationships between nations of the world and takes a progressive stand on humanitarian issues. For example, to highlight the fact that more than 65.3 million people across the world have been displaced from their homes and are classed as refugees under the United Nations definition, the International Olympic Committee supported the creation of the IOC refugee team, which featured 29 talented athletes across 12 sports in this year’s games. Such steps should be acknowledged and welcomed.

Dumfries and Galloway, in my region of South Scotland, is home to one member of team GB, modern pentathlete, 26-year-old Jo Muir from the Haugh of Urr, near Castle Douglas. She competed in the modern pentathlon alongside fellow team member, Kate French. Jo’s take-home message from the games is that, regardless of their ability, everyone should try a sport, whether it is sprints in the local park, planks in the living room or even a walk around the neighbourhood. Residents of the Haugh could not be prouder of their Olympian. They produced a wee video showing their support for her during the Olympics, which can be viewed online.

The Tokyo Olympics inspired many people across Scotland to try a new sport, from traditional sports such as running, cycling or swimming to new sports such as speed climbing, skateboarding and mountain biking. I welcome the fact that, to aid access to those sports, the Scottish Government has funded, and plans to double investment in, access to sporting facilities for younger people, particularly those in the most deprived areas of Scotland.

Across the South Scotland region, we have fantastic mountain biking, BMX and skating facilities. Mountain bikers can go to the 7stanes and there are various skate parks and pump tracks in the region. There is a brand-new pump track at Glentrool park in Lochside in Dumfries, a skate park in Kirkcudbright, a BMX arena in Berwickshire and a BMX track in Newton Stewart. The 7stanes mountain biking trails at the forests of Mabie and Ae, Kirroughtree, Dalbeattie, Glentress, Glentrool, Innerleithen and Newcastleton are all world renowned and are all in the South Scotland region. They offer a perfect training ground for all those who are interested in taking up mountain biking, and who could be our future Olympians.

However, I have been contacted by constituents who think that we are missing an opportunity to market those facilities better. I have written to Forestry and Land Scotland and VisitScotland in the past, but I also ask the minister whether the Government would consider a national marketing campaign based on Scotland’s 7stanes, which would enhance access to and promotion of those fantastic assets.

Finally, I want to mention Raiders Gravel Galloway, which is an international gravel cycle festival. The event seeks to attract people from across the globe and has various opportunities for local people to try gravel cycling. It also proposes to have accessible cycling at the event, which takes place from 7-10 October. The event could be a fantastic way to inspire our future Olympians.

I welcome the fact that we have had the debate. I congratulate all athletes on both teams in team GB for all that they do.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I congratulate my colleague Brian Whittle on securing the debate. I join the other speakers in congratulating everyone who took part in the Tokyo games on their success, whether they won medals or simply turned up. As a nation, we are deeply proud of what they have done. I am pleased that, next week, we will debate the Paralympic games and its success. All being well, I look forward to taking part in that debate, too.

As we heard from Mr Whittle, the Olympic games is a showcase of what sport is and can be like. For me, the real success of the Olympics is not just about those who turn up to compete or those who win medals; it is about how that affects the grass roots of our society with regard to sporting achievements. I saw the excitement that my daughters got from watching the Olympics on telly over the past few weeks. They learned about sports that they did not know about and were motivated to go back to doing the activities that they were already involved in.

We are all aware from the communities that we represent across Scotland that many activities have been closed down because of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, 313,000 people were attracted by access to sport and other such activities. However, because of the pandemic, a lot of those activities have closed down in our schools and communities. Across parties and across Government, we need to ensure that grass-roots events and sporting activities start again. We need to re-encourage people to volunteer on Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings, and we need to consider why fewer people are coming forward to volunteer for grass-roots sport.

We need to ensure that our young folk see the physical and mental benefits of taking part in grass-roots sport. As Brian Whittle said, very few of them will become Olympians, but that is not necessarily the benchmark of success in Scotland. The benchmark is our having fitter, healthier and better children coming through the system who can achieve what they can within their limitations. I hope that that happens.

We have to ensure that we do not have a missed generation. For example, up until a few weeks ago, my daughters had not been able to swim for nearly 18 months. There will be children who have not been able to go to swimming pools, who have not gone through basic swimming lessons, and who have not been able to progress to the next level because of that. I hope that, when we are looking at our figures and the system, we will leave nobody behind and that extra time and resources will be provided for those who have missed running, football, swimming or other activities.

I congratulate everyone who took part in the Tokyo games. As I said, they made us proud as a nation, and they have given us hope that we can come through the pandemic. We look forward to Paris in three years’ time.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

I congratulate Brian Whittle on securing the debate. His enthusiasm for sport can be seen, and I enjoyed that.

Like my colleagues and people throughout the country, I watched as our Olympians delivered major success for team GB in Tokyo during the summer and no doubt inspired a generation of young athletes to dream of reaching the very top of their sport. The commitment of our athletes, their coaches and their local clubs throughout the UK is admirable, and the time, skill and effort that are put into developing first-class athletes have undoubtedly paid off this summer. It is worth saying again that our athletes won an impressive 65 medals, which equals the London 2012 total.

Although indoor events took place behind closed doors, the return of the Olympics was much needed for all those who had been looking forward to a summer of sport. The Olympics brought a sense of normality, albeit in the most abnormal of times.

In the excitement of a global Olympic games, I sometimes think that we forget where it all begins for many. It begins at the grass-roots levels in towns and villages throughout Scotland and the whole of the UK, where future Olympians and Paralympians are first introduced to sport, enhance their skills and prepare for a future of success. It is in local communities that future champions develop what will become a lifelong love of sport, and it is local sports teams, such as Nithsdale Wanderers Football Club in Sanquhar, which I visited recently, that allow local accessibility and the opportunity for people to dream of playing for team GB at an Olympics some time in the future. A small games hall in the village of Catrine has championed badminton over many years and given young people the pride of performing in tournaments across the country.

It is a shame that those opportunities simply do not exist for many young people today and that accessing outdoor green spaces or using football pitches or multi-use game areas comes at a significant cost that is too much for many families. Others have spoken about the power that sport has to unite communities, spark friendships, showcase talent and improve mental health. Given that power, it is beyond belief that we do not give sport the recognition that it deserves or prioritise it in the way that we should. Austerity has hit sport hard and has taken it from the communities that need it most. When Governments have a target to reduce public spending, what is hit first? It is community spaces, sports halls and kids clubs, and we know that that disproportionately affects poorer communities.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

Does the member agree that, when councils decide to shut down community assets, that is actually a false economy? We take that money from one side of the ledger, but it goes on to the other side of the ledger through the cost to health and education services.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am happy to give you back the time for that, Ms Mochan.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

Thank you.

I see the thread that Mr Whittle is going with. I believe that austerity causes great detriment to the communities that need it most and that we need to look at the way in which services are funded. Of course, I agree that, if money is not used because there are no sporting facilities, it will be spent through the national health service.

We can, of course, highlight the national lottery funding and sportscotland grants that are available to local sports clubs to enhance their services. Through the national lottery’s awards for all project, sportscotland awarded more than £375,000 to 96 groups across Scotland. That is good but, if we believe that sports should and must be available to all, the truth is that we must argue against austerity and for the valued place of sport and sports facilities in every community. Every community deserves decent sports facilities and they should be available to be used by all.

The Tokyo games took place in the most difficult of circumstances. It is widely believed that it is the fans who make sport what it is. Their presence would undoubtedly have taken the success of the games to another level. It is right that we are debating the motion and I thank Brian Whittle for bringing it to the chamber. I applaud again the success of the Olympians, the hard work of their coaches and the influence of local sports clubs. We have a lot of work to do to make Scotland a fairer and more equal place. We know that we can do it and provide the opportunity for children not to be defined by their postcode but to become Olympians themselves. I hope that we can move forward towards a fairer strategy that helps all to progress towards being hopeful Olympians tomorrow.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I congratulate Brian Whittle on securing the debate and I congratulate all the UK athletes who took part in the Olympics, especially given the delay of a year when they had to keep training during Covid and lockdown, and be inventive in their training methods.

Pre-empting next week’s debate, of which I was unaware, I will focus my comments on the Paralympics. I acknowledge Brian Whittle’s commitment to increasing sport for all, although I would, as he knows, distinguish between sport and “activity”—a term that I prefer, being one of the many people who has no sport in my DNA.

I do not believe that the Olympics brings about any substantial cultural change, apart from for some people who may be inspired by Olympians to progress in their chosen sport. Rather like what we see with Wimbledon, when children are briefly seen out with tennis rackets, the change soon disappears. Activity is a different matter and for another debate.

It is, however, my view that the Paralympics does change, and has changed, society. For me, the London Olympics was the time when that sea change took place. The sight of people with disabilities—to use that broadest term—participating in all manner of sports, displaying not only their skills but in many cases their physical disabilities, has, I think, had a profound impact on the way that disability is viewed.

However, the Paralympics is not equal with the Olympics, as an event or for its participants, in many respects, a fundamental one of which is funding. In support of that point, I refer to a campaign by Paralympians David Weir, Jonnie Peacock and Hannah Cockroft. Those three top track stars have repeatedly raised issues of unequal pay, poor promotion and a lack of technical investment in the Tokyo games for Paralympians.

David Weir has said that he is

“sick of being second best” and has challenged Sebastian Coe to a “fight” for the future of para-athletics. After finishing fifth in the Paralympic marathon, the Weirwolf, as he is called, let rip on the parlous state of his sport and now wants World Athletics, of which Coe is president, to intervene. Along with swimming, para-athletics is reluctantly governed by the International Paralympic Committee. I say that the committee is reluctant because, in July, it openly invited interest in taking the responsibility off its hands.

David Weir said, “we deserve more”, and went on:

“That is what I’m going to fight for now, I am going to keep pushing and knocking on the door.”

On a positive note, I, too, congratulate Samantha Kinghorn from Melrose on her success in winning a bronze medal in Tokyo in the T53 100m, finishing just a quarter of a second behind the winner—such are the narrow margins, as Mr Whittle knows. She has come a long way since her first competition in 2012 in the London mini-marathon. She has come an even longer way since her injuries in 2010, when she was crushed by snow and ice and broke her back. She had emergency surgery and spent five months in hospital, with the injury to her spine leaving her paralysed from the waist down. She has said:

“I thought I’d be in a bed forever. So, to then get into a wheelchair was amazing. I know it sounds strange, but I was so happy. Then to find I could actually compete in sport in my wheelchair has just been incredible. Sport has helped me hugely, helped me to accept it really.”

That story, along with the cultural change in the public perception of disabilities that has resulted from the Paralympics, is inspirational. For that reason, although I congratulate those involved in the Olympics, I certainly value the Paralympics more.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

I am delighted to close the debate for the Scottish Government. I thank Brian Whittle for bringing the motion to the Scottish Parliament, and I thank the members who have contributed to the debate. As Mr Whittle knows, I share his passion for sport, although not his skill.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games will forever be known for having taken place in 2021 rather than 2020. They will also be remembered as the best games in history for team GB, in terms of performances and medals. On behalf of the Scottish Government, I thank everyone in team GB, including those involved in preparing the athletes and putting in place all the arrangements to keep them safe during the pandemic. It is not simply about athletes turning up on the day. There is an entire programme, with a network of coaches, managers, physiotherapists, nutritionists and more behind the scenes working tirelessly to ensure that everything is in place.

I also put on record our congratulations to the organising committee of the International Olympic Committee, and of course the Japanese Government, for putting on such wonderful games across 33 venues, despite the challenges of the pandemic. Scottish athletes certainly played their part by contributing to 14 medals in the Olympics and 21 in the Paralympics. As Mr Whittle said, the Scots on team GB certainly punched above their weight, and all of Scotland is proud of them.

I want to give a special mention to the family and friends who were not able to travel to Japan to watch their loved ones perform at the very highest level—I hope that their sleeping patterns are back to normal now. Others who watched the performances at the games must have been inspired by our athletes and their accomplishments, which are not just about the medals and the records galore that were smashed, from British and Scottish records to new personal bests.

To do so during a pandemic, when training has been difficult, and in front of empty stands without the extra lift from spectators, demonstrates their dedication and desire to do their best for their team, themselves, their coaches and their loved ones.

I personally congratulate all our competitors and medal winners, and make special mention of swimmer Duncan Scott, who became the first British athlete to win four medals at one games. I also take the opportunity to thank our sports governing bodies—sportscotland, including the institute of sport, UK Sport and the National Lottery—for their continued work to support our athletes.

I have mentioned the work that goes on behind the scenes in order to get our athletes to the start line, and in the best possible condition. I am also aware of the thousands of people across Scotland who volunteer, and give people of all ages and abilities the opportunity to participate in sport and physical exercise. That contribution has been recognised by several members during the debate. Clubs, groups and classes can only be held thanks to an army of volunteers who cut the grass, paint the lines, open the buildings, clean facilities, maintain equipment and, of course, coach the participants. As a rugby player, I know at first hand how many hours a week people put in to provide such an opportunity for others.

As many other members have said, sport is a powerful tool in improving our physical and mental health. At this moment in time, it is also vital in bringing communities together. That is why our programme for government commits to doubling the investment in sport and active living to £100 million a year by the end of this parliamentary session. That investment will enable us to rebuild capacity and resilience in the sector following the pandemic, and ensure that we address the inequalities in access to physical activity and sport, which many members have mentioned.

A priority will be to support participation across all groups, and to tackle inequalities. We will work with sportscotland, as well as with organisations and individuals across Scotland, to break down the barriers, financial or otherwise, that keep too many people from leading active lives. Physical activity and sport can be central to Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic, by providing the boost that we all need to our physical and mental health and bringing us together in our communities. That approach has been central to our changing lives work, as the sector is pivoted to the changing needs of its communities, which has resulted in the sector playing an important role during various phases of the Covid lockdowns. The sport and physical activity sector is in a good position to support communities in rebuilding, through learning and engaging in programmes that will achieve locally focused outcomes, as well as sporting outcomes.

The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly brought its challenges to the Scottish sporting sector, but it has also brought opportunities through strengthened relationships and greater partnership working. Sports clubs are often in a unique position in communities, and since becoming minister, I have been impressed in the conversations that I have had with the sector around its commitment to breaking down the barriers to activity.

Once again, I thank everyone involved in team GB, our inspiring athletes, our sporting sector, and, in particular, the thousands of volunteers. At the 2022 Commonwealth games in Birmingham, our athletes will look to build on successes from the Gold Coast and Glasgow. In only three years’ time, we will again be supporting team GB at the Paris Olympics, where many of our athletes will be targeting further success, and the next generation of athletes will be looking to stamp their mark on the sporting global stage. During that period, we will be working with our partners right across the sporting sector to address inequalities in access to physical activities and sport, and to aspire to be a more active nation.

Thank you to everyone who has made a contribution tonight, and to Brian Whittle for lodging the motion.

Meeting closed at 18:19.