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Column: Without Scotland, not so great Britain

PARIS (AP) — After 26 years guiding Manchester United, Alex Ferguson knows better than most that one should always think very, very carefully before breaking up a winning team. Perhaps that helps explain why he donated money to the campaign urging voters in his native Scotland to say “No” to independence in the historic ballot this week.

Because, when teamed together in sports — notably at the Olympics — Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish athletes are proven winners, often a world-beating combination. Britain’s most decorated Olympian is a Scot, track cyclist Chris Hoy. Fact is, if the Scots pull out, what remains of Team Great Britain won’t be quite so great.

The future of sports in Scotland and how competitive it might be as an independent nation probably won’t be foremost on voters’ minds on Thursday. They have got bigger questions — Can we keep the pound sterling? Remain in the United Nations, the European Union and NATO? Finance and defend ourselves? — to weigh in the potential break-up of their 307-year-old union with England.

Some athletes may jump at the chance to compete with the Saltire, the Scottish flag, on their jerseys and hear “Flower of Scotland” played at medal ceremonies.

“We believe very strongly that the prize of being an athlete competing for the first time for Team Scotland in the Olympics and Paralympics will be something that is hard to resist for the vast majority of athletes,” said pro-independence Scottish politician Shona Robison. Robison, who also serves as the Scottish government’s minister for sport, was speaking in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

But for Scots teamed with non-Scots, who get British funding and train in England with non-Scots coaches, unpicking such links could be tough. Athletes won’t be forced to join Team Scotland, so some may prefer to stick with the status quo in Team GB if they can, as the easier and possibly safer option.

Take Luke Patience, one of Britain’s top Olympic sailors. Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, his partner in the 470 class of dinghies is Elliot Willis, from Kent in southern England.

They are competing this week at the world championships in Spain, a qualifying event for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Patience won Olympic silver teamed with another Englishman, Stuart Bithell, at the 2012 London Games. As a potential top competitor for Team GB in 2016, Patience also gets a slice of the

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