Sports chief says Scotland 'in dark ages'

THE head of the government's sports promotions agency has warned that Scotland is stuck in the "dark ages" with substandard facilities that will hold back the creation of a new generation of world-class athletes.

• Stewart Harris: lack of progress

In his first major interview since his appointment five years ago, Sportscotland chief executive Stewart Harris admits he is frustrated at the lack of progress in building an infrastructure for the 21st century and beyond and one which might deliver Olympic champions as well as contributing to the nation's overall fitness.

With sport perched near the top of the political agenda with the approach of London 2012, and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow two years later, Harris senses a historic opportunity has arrived to reverse the decline. A former teacher as well as a top-level basketball coach, he has witnessed at close hand the various attempts to patch, mend and make do over the past three decades. "It's referred to as the dark ages," he declares.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Despite incentives and encouragement, Harris believes many councils have failed to show enough foresight in the way they have addressed the issue.

"You can spend a lot of time trying to influence," he concedes. "But the progress can be frustratingly slow sometimes. Because we fund the (sports] governing bodies to a large extent, we can be clear in what we want them to do. It's a tougher conversation with our local authorities. We understand they have a lot of things to deal with and sport's a small part. But I make no apologies about pushing that up the agenda."

Utilising funding from the National Lottery and its own 41 million budget, Sportscotland can provide a carrot but rarely wield a stick. Edinburgh Council recently hiked the rent charged to sports clubs using its facilities while it is preparing to mothball the cycling track at Meadowbank where Olympic cycling champion Chris Hoy learned his trade.

Harris points to the set-up in Germany as the way forward, rather than Scotland's makeshift approach. "If you could have a blank sheet tomorrow, you'd have a European model of multi-sport clubs," he said. "Its premise is that each municipality manages and funds single centres of excellence in a co-ordinated approach that has delivered World Cups and medallists aplenty. I'd like to see that develop here and that's where our community sport hubs come from. That's clearly about facilities and access. The local authorities have a strong role to play."

Having moved into the health portfolio within the Scottish Government, Sportscotland has been bound up with the anti-obesity battle. Yet, the Scottish Government's pledge that every child should get at least two hours of PE per week has not been met. And, even during the recent flurry of school builds around the country, insufficient thought has been given to how sports halls might be designed and equipped to become both hives of activity and crucibles of talent.There was, Harris laments, no statutory obligation to consult his agency during their planning. "There is still time to rectify that and, from here on, make sure that the sports part of any new schools built is of the highest quality and has a community aspect included as well," he states.

"There have been some opportunities missed in the past and this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance with the number of schools being built. There are some great examples, like in Kinross where they have a community campus which is fabulous. But there are others where it's not been as positive as that."

To drive forward his agenda, Sportscotland's supremo has met with every council while despatching his staff to gather intelligence and take soundings from those at the sharp end. The lessons, he confirms, have been assimilated. And there can be no more time wasted in idle chatter if a new age is finally to dawn.

"There suddenly seems to be a groundswell of value being expressed about the potential of sport, right from the minister down to the head teachers, in getting people involved in their communities. But it's up to us to make it happen."