Olympic tennis champion Andy Murray is Scottish when he loses and British if he wins, or so the joke goes at Wimbledon.
If his native Scotland votes in favor of independence on Sept. 18, Britain’s first male Wimbledon singles champion in 77 years may not be flying the Union Flag for much longer. Murray and other Scottish gold medalists such as rower Heather Stanning may be competing against their former teammates at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Their absence could knock the British Olympic team out of the top three of the medals table.
“It’s a significant chunk of Great Britain’s medals, and they obviously would be missed,” James Allen, head of policy at the Sport & Recreation Alliance, said in an interview. The group represents more than 300 U.K. sporting bodies, including the Football Association, UK Athletics and British Rowing.
While Scottish athletes made up 10 percent of the British team at London 2012, they won one-fifth of the medals. Out of the 13 won by Scottish competitors including cyclist Chris Hoy, seven were gold, pushing the British Olympic team to third on the medals table behind the U.S. and China with a record haul of 65 medals. Had Scotland competed as an independent country in London, it would have finished 12th based on golds won.
Polls show the vote next week will go down to the wire. The pro-union Better Together campaign is leading by four percentage points when excluding undecided voters, with 52 percent opposed to independence and 48 percent in support in a poll by YouGov Plc for the Times and Sun newspapers. A survey by the same company last weekend put the Yes side ahead for the first time, triggering a decline in financial markets.
A report by the Working Group on Scottish Sport published in May concluded that there are “no obvious or major barriers” to securing Olympic accreditation for an independent Scotland for Rio 2016. That supported the plan in the blueprint for independence published by the Scottish government.
According to the report, compiled by Henry McLeish, a former Scottish first minister who once played professional soccer, athletes would be able to choose whether they wanted to compete for Scotland or Great Britain if they were a national of two or more countries.
However, International Olympic Committee Vice President Craig Reedie told the Observer newspaper last week it would be “very, very difficult” for a newly formed Scottish Olympic team to compete in Rio because of the compressed time frame. Scotland’s target date for independence is March 2016, while the Rio games start in August.
Scotland will be eligible to compete as an independent nation if its National Olympic Committee is recognized by the IOC. According to the Olympic Charter, a country needs at least five sports governing bodies and recognition as a nation state by the international community to gain accreditation. Scotland currently has 11 sports governing bodies.
Montenegro competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics less than two years after it became an independent state. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sent teams to the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville five months after getting United Nations status.
“It is not possible for the IOC to give a time frame as each case is different and the question is hypothetical at this stage,” IOC spokesman Andrew Mitchell said by e-mail, when asked if Scotland would be able to send an independent team to Brazil under a similar schedule as the Baltic states.
“Team GB is made up of athletes from all eligible home nations and territories,” British Olympic Association spokesman Adrian Bassett said. “Once the referendum result is known, we will look at the possible consequences for a British Olympic team and plan accordingly.”
Future funding for athletes and training at performance centers in England are also unclear should Scotland go it alone. UK Sport, the nation’s elite-sport funding agency, receives about 350 million pounds ($569 million) from the government and the National Lottery in the four-year Rio cycle.
“Sport is not one of the issues that is going to be dealt with first,” Allen said. “There are other very significant issues to be dealt with first, such as the currency. There is a worry about when we would get around to talking about sport.”
Murray, who won Olympic gold in singles and a silver medal in mixed doubles with Laura Robson for Britain in 2012, said he would play for Scotland. The Dunblane native won’t be eligible to vote because he lives outside Scotland, with houses near London and in Miami.
“If Scotland became independent, then I imagine I would be playing for Scotland,” where most of his family lives, he told reporters at the U.S. Open last month.
Playing under the Scottish blue-and-white Saltire flag would be a new experience for Murray, who said he’s been watching some of the debates between Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond and No campaign head Alistair Darling.
“Ever since I started traveling to tournaments since I was 11 years old, always played under Great Britain,” he said. “That’s normal to me.”