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Politicized games before Scots' independence vote
Glasgow hosting politically-charged Commonwealth Games as Scots' independence referendum looms
By ROB HARRIS
Associated Press
2014-07-24 03:22 AM

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) -- After years of exhaustive preparation formulating tactics to deliver success, comes the final push for glory in Scotland.

Not just for the thousands of athletes in Glasgow for the start of the Commonwealth Games on Wednesday but also for the nationalist politicians trying to persuade Scots to sanction the breakup of Britain.

The once-in-a-generation chance to change the course of a nation's history comes in less than two months, when Scots will vote in their first independence referendum in 35 years. There is little time to waste for Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, who already heads the country's devolved government and has dedicated his life's work to splitting the union.

However, Salmond knows he has to restrain himself during the Commonwealth Games and allow Scots to savor the sporting spectacle rather than hijacking appearances at the venues to promote the SNP message before the Sept. 18 poll.

"I've taken a kind of self-denying ordinance to concentrate on the games over the next 10 days. I think that's what the people of Scotland want," Salmond said.

"We have 10 days here, we are going to concentrate on presenting Scotland to the world. We have plenty of time when the games are over ... to get into the thick of the referendum debate."

Scotland's First Minister was publicly rebuked by Andy Murray for marking the tennis star's first Wimbledon title in 2013 by unfurling a Scottish flag in the Royal Box on Centre Court.

"Attempts to apparently easily exploit the success of sports men and women can backfire as when Andy Murray won Wimbledon," John Curtis, a politics professor at Strathclyde University, said by telephone. "That was a pretty crass attempt and it backfired. It's become a bit of a joke."

The anti-independence campaign will also need to be mindful of its conduct at the games. Prime Minister David Cameron, who tweets congratulatory messages following sporting feats, will have to be seen to be celebrating triumphs by athletes from across the United Kingdom.

"I don't want to get into politics today because today is about the Commonwealth Games and I'm going to try to leave the politics to one side," Cameron told business leaders in Glasgow on Wednesday.

Undoubtedly, if the games are an operational success and Scotland is amassing gold medals, the patriotic fervor will rise. A mistake would be in presuming that swathes of flag-waving Scots and enthusiastic renditions of "Flower of Scotland" at venues will translate into more Yes votes in the independence referendum.

Polls consistently put the No side ahead but indicate that many voters are undecided -- a factor Curtis does not anticipate being influenced by the size of Team Scotland's Commonwealth medal haul or the sense of pride in home success.

"Identity plays a role but it's not a dominant role in terms of voting," Curtis said. "Virtually everyone in Scotland ubiquitously feel Scottish. The division is about how British you feel and whether you want to hang onto the union or not."

How Scottish sport would be affected by ending the 307-year union remains uncertain. While Scots are within a British team at the Olympics, independence would see them go it alone -- just like in football, rugby and the Commonwealth Games.

But Scotland's nationalist government hopes that funding for athletes from the existing British National Lottery handouts would continue, and they would hope to retain access to elite facilities south of the border in England.

"Politicians are yet to talk about the effects of independence on sport despite the huge role that sport plays on national identity," said James Allen, head of policy at the Sport and Recreation Alliance.

Athletes themselves could have a powerful voice in the final weeks of the referendum campaign, and will not be prevented from disclosing their views during the games.

"We don't put a muzzle on athletes, that's up to them," said Prince Tunku Imran, president of the Commonwealth Games Federation. "But we'd rather everyone concentrate on the sport."

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Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris

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