A visit by the Sports Minister to Denmark underlined how far Scotland lags behind Europe. David Henderson reports
Sam Galbraith, former climber, Glasgow University rower and now Sports Minister, could not have had a clearer picture of the distance Scotland has to travel to match the best in sport. Denmark is also a country of 5 million people, shares many characteristics of a small nation but is in a different league when it comes to numbers taking part and international performance.
Fifteen years ago, any Scottish football team facing Danish opponents fancied an easy passage. The reverse is now true and something fundamental has happened to make that transformation possible.
Only 10 per cent of young Danes are not in sports clubs, where virtually all youth sport takes place. They do not have school sport as we know it. Almost half the population continue an active sporting life as adults. Around 1.5 million people belong to clubs.
It is little wonder Danish teams have doubled their medal tally at major events over the past 10 years, won European championships and produced footballers like Brian Laudrup, and repeatedly won world titles at badminton and sailing. Strategies for youth, recreational and elite sport have been in place for more than a decade.
Mr Galbraith admits the Danish system is unlikely to be replicated and finds it strange their regular after-school care programmes do not emphasise sport.
However, he envies the positive attitudes and the extent of voluntary activity. At the end of his visit, he told The TES Scotland: "It is getting people to appreciate that sport is fun and enhances life, and that it is important for individuals within society. Sport is good for your health."
A Scottish delegation, led by Mr Galbraith, and supported by councillors and officials from East and West Lothian, the Scottish Sports Council and sports consultants, left suitably impressed. Young people regularly attend after-school facilities and at least twice weekly attend sports clubs for training, before competing at the weekend.
Stewart Harris, head of the Sports Council's team sport initiative, said participation levels were "outstanding" and found it hard to find fault with any of the Danish structures.
Ian Thomson, professor of elite sports studies at Stirling University, pinpointed key factors. "The sums of money are staggering and what is absolutely critical is that the Danes do not ignore any sector of sports provision."
Income tax levels for the average Dane are more than 50 per cent and state spending on education and sport is correspondingly higher. Lottery cash funds national sports organisations to a far higher level than in Scotland.
Professor Thomson accepts the emphasis on clubs will not transfer. "We have to resurrect after-school activities and these ought to be a first step to a broader concept of after-school care. We can make an immediate start by using recently appointed school sport co-ordinators to establish 4-6 clubs in secondary schools, extending back into curriculum time and following into evening hours," he said.
Mr Galbraith describes the recommendation from East and West Lothian councils and Professor Thomson for 4-6 clubs as "a great idea" that will build on the work of sports co-ordinators. He expects councils to make proposals that can be funded from the lottery and the proposed scheme for healthy living centres.
"After-school care will develop because more and more parents want it. It is a social necessity, allows women choice in their lives and frees them up. We should link it into sport and I am surprised the Danes have not done it. We can formalise sport within it."
East and West Lothian, pilot authorities for sports co-ordinators, urged the minister to extend the principle of after-school sport by funding what Ross Martin, West Lothian's education convener, described as "twilight clubs", operating in schools after hours.
Mr Martin said: "It is organising alternative activities, sport, art, drama, music and outdoor education, on a larger scale. We would be happy to attract additional money from the lottery but also we could redirect some of our own resources within the community and leisure budget."
Norman Hampshire, education vice-convener in East Lothian, believes there is a community demand for 4-6 clubs, although he cautions that an extended system could be expensive.