The chairman of Scottish athletics has called for politicians in Scotland to give a higher profile to grassroots sport in responding to the impact of the Covid pandemic.
Ian Beattie said the past year had been a “very difficult time” for clubs, athletes, coaches and community organisations and urged a new Scottish government portfolio to be created solely for sport with responsibility for encouraging participation numbers and generating new cross-party initiatives to help grassroots organisations.
He was speaking exclusively to ther Press and Journal about the need for greater understanding of the problems which are being faced by community clubs with so many events being cancelled during 2020 and 2021.
Beattie, who will depart the role later this year, said: “It has been a very difficult time for our clubs, the athletes and the coaches, with the very limited competition opportunities and long periods where clubs have been unable to meet up at all.
“However, we have also seen a lot of great work in the way the sport has tried to respond to the situation positively, through initiatives like virtual training sessions, virtual events, online coaching sessions and amended forms of competition.
“Many clubs have also seen an opportunity to attract new members from the large number of people who have started running during lockdown, helped by our ‘Keep on Running’ campaign.
“We appreciate the fact people have been able to continue running throughout the pandemic, but the sport of athletics is a lot wider than running, and it has been particularly difficult for our field athletes and for athletes needing access to facilities and equipment that has not been available.
“The situation has also presented financial challenges for us and our clubs. Membership numbers have fallen, somewhat inevitably, because of the reduction in activity across the sport. Event income is important to both the clubs and the governing body itself, and the lack of events has reduced income from this source significantly. Cancellation of events has also had a significant impact at UK Athletics which has resulted in a reduction in support available to Scottish Athletics for development work.
“During this period, we have had to recruit a new chief executive, head of performance and head of development, so it has not been without its challenges. But we believe that the sport was in a very good place before the pandemic came along, and that gives us a lot of confidence that we can rebuild successfully in the years ahead.”
Beattie is convinced that athletics and other pursuits can help tackle a wide range of health and social problems, such as boosting mental health and reducing obesity, but not without a fundamental change in political priorities in Scotland.
He said: “Sport has a hugely important role to play in the success of any country, but unfortunately, I do not think the potential of sport as a ‘factor for good’ is fully recognised by any of the political parties.
“Because of that, we miss out on a lot of opportunities to recognise the positive role sport can play across areas such as physical and mental health, education, crime, the environment and economic wellbeing.
“What a difference there could be if our leaders recognised this, and treated it as a much higher priority – for example could we set a goal of Scotland having the healthiest population in Europe by 2030?
“If we set that goal, what would we need to do to achieve it? Could we get all of our political parties to recognise this is not a party political issue, and work together? We need the kind of thinking that brought in our right to roam and smoking ban legislation – big initiatives that change the way we look at sport and physical activity.
“A cabinet level Sports Minister would be a positive step. We should be discussing whether how to introduce more sport to the school curriculum – many private schools have a ‘sports afternoon’, so could this be considered in the state sector?”
Despite the challenges of preparing for the future, Beattie is relishing the prospect of the Olympics in Tokyo later this year.
He thinks that, even without crowds, the global event should provide inspiration to myriad Scottish youngsters who watch their compatriots hunt for medals in Japan.
He added: “I am really looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics. Covid will make it very different from previous Games, but seeing the top athletes in the world compete across a range of sports should inspire many people.
“From a Scottish perspective, we have a number of athletes who have genuine opportunities of winning medals, but none of us are under any illusions about how difficult winning Olympic medals actually is.
“I am sure our athletes will prepare as well as they can and we know they will be very well coached; we all hope that it can come right on the day. Liz McColgan’s gold medal run in Tokyo at the 1991 World Championships remains one of the iconic moments of athletics in Scotland, and it would be wonderful to see something similar this summer.”