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If You Think Devolution Has Changed Welsh Sport, Then Wait For The Fall-Out From Brexit

It’s not just politics that could be in meltdown as the Brexit fires rage on. Sport – which in Wales has already been re-shaped by devolution – may also look very different in the future, as Graham Thomas reports.

It’s 20 years since Cerys Matthews told the planet she thanked the Lord she was Welsh at the Rugby World Cup – and the same since devolution.

Those two events of 1999 may not have been directly related – Catatonia’s anthem, International Velvet, pre-dated the first Welsh Assembly elections by a year – but it was certainly a time when sport, politics and culture in Wales began to overlap as never before.

In purely sporting terms, the legacy of devolution is hard to judge. Wales has hosted many showpiece events and tournaments in the past 20 years and there has been much success for national teams as well as individuals.

But it’s harder to assess how much might have occurred anyway if there was no Welsh government, no Senedd Cymru or Welsh Parliament building, and if the overseeing of Welsh sport in a wider sense was still undertaken through the UK government’s Welsh Office.

The staging achievements of the past 20 years, though, are notable. After that 1999 hosting of the Rugby World Cup (or at least the major knockout stage fixtures as well as a pool), Wales gave a home to FA Cup and League Cup finals whilst Wembley Stadium was rebuilt.

Then came the European Rugby Cup finals, the Ashes cricket Tests at a reconstructed Sophia Gardens, the 2010 Ryder Cup at the revamped Celtic Manor, world title boxing events, speedway Grand Prix races, Olympic football matches in 2012, football’s European Champions League Final in 2017, and more recently one-day Tests as part of the Cricket World Cup.

It is difficult to assess how devolution assisted or secured any of these events, but it can be assumed that a more sharpened sense of national identity, of distinctiveness from the rest of the UK, has made Wales a more marketable sales pitch that goes beyond a few images of dragons, a pit wheel, and a male voice choir.

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When Real Madrid and Juventus came to Cardiff for that Champions League clash at the Principality Stadium, the “advertising equivalent” was estimated be worth around £50m.

Laura McAllister – a former chair of Sport Wales as well as professor of public policy and governance at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre – believes devolution has had a direct impact on Wales’ ability to host events and to shape whatever benefits may follow.

She says: “In football circles, Wales has always been independent. The authority was always that of an independent country, but when you take that into major events bidding, the structures are very different now.

“Take the Champions League bid – that was done almost entirely through Welsh government and the FAW. In the past, it would have been a committee of DCMS (department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) trying to manage that.

“They might not have had the interests of Wales at heart. It may not have been in their interests to have an infrastructure strategy for hotels and transport that better suited Wales. For them, they may have looked at is as a London-based project where the game happened to be in Cardiff. There wouldn’t have been much accountability, either.”

McAllister, however, sees real evidence for change since devolution in the administration of sport, where organisations have had to adapt to a Welsh-focused strategy.

“Structurally, devolution has definitely made a difference to Welsh sport,” she adds.

“There was a time when even some of the governing bodies were not Welsh-focused.

“The fact that we have our own parliament and our own government means the rest of Welsh civic society, including sport, orientates itself to Wales.

“In the past, there might have been things that happened within an English and Welsh framework and nobody really talked about the Welsh part of it.

“But governing bodies now have to be attuned to a Welsh structure because the funding is now much more clearly defined as coming from the Welsh government.”

And it’s not only the individual sports and their governing bodies that have been forced to adapt in a devolved Wales.

Sport Wales, she argues, has been forced to sharpen up its act and clarify its aims and objectives so that they match those of Welsh government.

“Sport Wales has had to align its strategy with that of the government more generally. That never had to happen in the past.

“Things like child poverty, future generations, equalities targets – Sport Wales now have to constantly provide information to government about those things.

“Whether you think that is good or bad, or are indifferent, it has certainly changed the way Sport Wales operates.”

And don’t imagine, the effects of devolution have reached their end point in a sporting context.

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McAllister talks about a “contagion effect”, whereby even the banks and building societies have to recognise they are operating in a different country with a separate authority.

“The fact that we have our own parliament and government has created this spillover into civic society,” she says.

So where next for Welsh sport, if the process of devolution continues and if nationalism continues to be a growing influence, politically?

No more UK Sport in charge of the purse strings for developing world class athletes? No more Lions rugby tours, just ones by Wales? No more Great Britain at the Olympics, but a Team Wales one, instead?

These are developments that could make the Team GB row over football at the Olympics look like small beer.

McAllister adds: “A second independence referendum in Scotland could end the concept of Team GB, upon which everything in Sport UK is predicated. Who knows what might then happen in Wales and Northern Ireland?

“If we see the break-up of the UK in the next decade, UK Sport has no function.”


3 thoughts on “If You Think Devolution Has Changed Welsh Sport, Then Wait For The Fall-Out From Brexit

  1. You make no mention of the language that gives Wales prominent distinctiveness and puts emotion into its national anthem (Scotland has its laws and constitution whilst Ireland has the Irish Sea to set them apart). Welsh history, culture and customs have been written in Cymraeg since the sixth century – without the language the concept of Wales would have disappeared long ago along with Cornwall or Cumbria.

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