Sport can change lives, says new sportscotland chair Mel Young
The Herald Scotland, by Stewart Fisher
Mel Young has first-hand experience of the transformative power of sport. Through his ongoing work at the Homeless World Cup, of which he is President and co-founder, he has seen physical activity prolong the lives of hopeless drug addicts, pick them up by the boot straps, and refocus them for productive, leadership roles in the world of work.
This social mission now promises to inform his work as the chair of sportscotland for the next four years, the key post which it was announced yesterday that he will inherit from Louise Martin when she takes up her post as President of the Commonwealth Games Federation in June. The baton wasn’t quite handed over yesterday but it was at least the start of the transition.
"I have worked with the most marginalised, deprived people on the planet and used sport as a mechanism for getting them out of their situations," said Young, who has had a seat on the 13-strong sportscotland board for seven years, the last three as vice-president. "So that is the area of expertise I bring to bear.
"I have seen people absolutely transform their lives through sport," he added. "I have known people with severe heroin addiction problems who I personally wouldn’t have thought would live yet who have got involved in our football programmes and are now clean, taking leadership jobs, management jobs. They have changed their lives and the intervention point was football, sport. If you can intervene in that level of acute problems then it can work for anybody."
If Martin’s eight-year reign at the national funding body co-incided with an unparalleled focus on elite performance around the London Olympics in 2012 and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2104, Young is equally determined that his focus on grassroots outreach work should not come at the cost of the sharp end of Scottish sport. A Hibs season ticket holder with a running habit, he jokes that "average" is "the maximum he has attained" in his own sporting career, but uses the Commonwealth Games as an example of how top level success can inspire a generation. While exact funding for the next year remains a source of discussion, it appears relatively stable for the next few years while Scotland’s sporting facilities infrastructure has come on massively in the last decade, a process which will continue with the completion of the state-of-the-art Oriam centre at Heriott-Watt University and the comprehensive upgrade of the Inverclyde centre in Largs.
"There are different points of emphasis but for me it is not elite sports versus grassroots," said Young. "It has to be altogether, the whole thing, and that is what sportscotland has been doing. I think we should do more but I don’t necessarily feel you have to take resource from one side to the other side. We need the elite level as well, because that is where people get inspired and understand sport."
Where the Homeless World Cup all got started, on the other hand, was in a bar in Cape Town, South Africa, in the wee small hours of the morning in 2001. Young, an entrepreneur who co-founded the Big Issue in Scotland in 1993, and the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) in 1995, was sharing a drink with an Austrian colleague called Harald Schmidt.
"We were sitting till 2, 3 in the morning thinking about how we could change the world," said Young. "We were saying ‘well this was a great conference but where are all the homeless people?’ We threw ideas around, but there were visa problems, language problems. Then we remembered there was an international language called football. We shook hands and arranged a game between Scotland and Austria. Then we drank some more beer and by the end of the night we had invented the Homeless World Cup. Critically the next morning we met over breakfast again and said ‘you know what, we will do it’."
If Young’s new sportscotland role is as successful as his day job that will be quite something. Last year’s event, in Amsterdam, saw Mexico emerge strongest from a 48-strong field to take their first title. In July 2016, the tournament shifts to Glasgow, where Scotland – twice winners of the event, in Copenhagen in 2007 then Paris in 2011 – are aiming to make it a hat-trick. "Those guys were fantastic representatives for Scotland," said Young. "On both occasions, typically for Scotland, they weren’t the best team, but they came together to beat the favourites and win."
That last part, you might have noticed, isn’t so typical of Scottish football right now. Scotland are far more successful at Homeless World Cup level than they currently are in the Fifa and Uefa competitions, even if Young resists the suggestion that their funding should be cut. "The investments we are giving into football are more about youth football or women’s football, so on and so forth, not necessarily about the elite level, or just linked to the top team and how it performs," he said. "The difference between success and failure can be down to a bad refereeing decision or a fluke goal or try or something, so you have to balance that up."
His own list of personal inspirations includes watching a classy Hibs team defeat Celtic at Hampden in the League Cup final in 1972, Lynsey Sharp hauling herself off her sick bed to take Commonwealth Games silver plus the abiding sportsmanship of the Scottish audience he witnessed at Glasgow 2014. "I was at the Triathlon relay, most of the athletes had finished and it had just started to rain," he said. "There was this guy, from Mozambique I think, who was way behind the others, and nobody moved. Everybody sat in the rain, waiting to cheer this guy coming in last."