EARLIER this week, a story in The Herald caught my eye: Sam Ingram, double Paralympic judo medallist, gave an exclusive interview expressing his disappointment that if any athlete wants to continue to be funded by the national governing body, they must relocate to the national performance centre in Walsall in the West Midlands. Ingram is currently based in Edinburgh and trains at the Judo Scotland national training centre at Ratho alongside some of the current greats of British judo including London 2012 silver medallist Gemma Gibbons and Rio 2016 bronze medallist Sally Conway.
Ingram’s issue with relocating is two-fold: firstly, his life is in Edinburgh – he is studying at Edinburgh University and he is engaged to fellow Scottish judoka Jodie Mullen – and secondly, he has proven that by training in Scotland he can produce results on the world stage.
Gibbons has also declined a place on the GB programme due to the demand that she relocate to England. Gibbons’ reasons were almost identical to Ingram’s, namely her ties to Edinburgh – she is married to Commonwealth gold medallist and Scottish national coach, Euan Burton, and she is also studying at Edinburgh University – and she believes that the capital is the best place to maximise her potential as a judoka.
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However, Conway, who became the first Scottish judoka ever to win an Olympic medal when she took bronze in Rio last summer, will make the move south despite having trained in Edinburgh for over a decade. These developments mean that neither Ingram nor Gibbons will now receive any funding from British Judo while Conway will continue to be fully funded as a result of her move.
There is something profoundly unjust that world-class athletes are being put in this situation. As Ingram himself says, if the training centre in Edinburgh was failing to produce results then British Judo forcing a move would be entirely justified. However, this is clearly not the case; Scottish judoka won 13 medals at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. Euan Burton was a multiple world and European medallist, Conway has developed from a promising teenager into one of the best in the world and Ingram and Gibbons have maintained a world-class level, all while training in Edinburgh.
With the success that the centre in Edinburgh has fostered in recent years, it seems somewhat bizarre to remove the option for athletes to remain there. Elite performance is not solely physical; there are few elite athletes who perform at their best if they are not also emotionally happy. To suggest individuals must leave their home in order to pursue their sporting dream is not only unfair, it is misguided. Everything is in place in Scotland to produce world-class judoka – that has been proven. Burton has been hailed by countless athletes as one of the best coaches in Britain – is British Judo saying that his coaching is not good enough to get players to the very highest level? Given his track record, that would be ridiculous. And the quality of practise is evidently sufficient or else Conway would not have been able to beat some of the best in the world at Rio 2016.
During my days as an athlete, I was placed in a similar position to these Scottish judoka: move to England or lose funding. I refused to move and it was the best decision I ever made. There appears to be a very pro-England mentality when it comes to choosing the location of national centres; almost every Olympic sport is based south of the border. In some cases, this is fair, in others, such as judo, this most certainly is not. Ingram and Gibbons have impressively stood their ground and placed their faith in Ratho. Scotland can produce world-class athletes without them having to relocate to England yet those who hold the purse strings are making this stance harder and harder. As I wrote in these pages last week, Scottish Athletics is flourishing as a result of a strong club system, not because of a single national centre. Gibbons and Ingram should be applauded not only for sticking to their guns but also for highlighting how good Scotland’s elite sport set-up actually is.
AND ANOTHER THING . . .
The athletics headline that attracted most attention this week was the announcement that Russia will remain banned from competition until after this summer’s World Championships. However, a potentially more important move was that by the IAAF that switches of allegiance were to be halted with immediate effect until the current rules are reviewed. In recent years, countless track and field athletes have changed nationality, with a significant number switching to represent Bahrain and Qatar, as well as Turkey. The problem is not restricted to athletics but it has been particularly obvious in this sport. This rule-change will not solve athletics’ problems but it will go some way to restoring credibility to national representation. Other sports, notably rugby union, should take note.