Posted by: secretperson | August 26, 2008

Olympics – Nationality and Identity

Gordon Brown, the most British man in the world, has been understandably excited and hopeful that Team GB’s success in the Olympics will feed back into his political agenda. Many commentators (including Iain Martin in the Telegraph) have also proposed that this sporting triumph could invigorate British nationalism. While not quite on the scale of Soviet and East German drug cheating (or suspected Chinese gymnast age scandals) this is a clear case of politicians trying to gain credibility from sporting success. This led me to think about how sport and identity are linked.

First off, as this will largely represent my personal views, I will make some personal comments on my sporting interests. I am a keen watcher of pretty much all sports but golf, but mainly football and cricket live. I support the football team of the town I was born and grew up in, and the cricket team of my home county. I support the England football and rugby union teams and the England and Wales cricket team. But why do I feel this way?

Watching the Olympics this year, for the first time since I really became interested in English nationalism as a political concept, I had mixed feelings on Team GB. They are my local team, so by the logic of my other team choices I should support them. And they are also the team I would represent, were I good enough at any sport to make the Olympics. Watching the individual events, as with any sport I watch, I chose someone to support, in order to add the interest of competition, and I generally supported the British competitors.

So far so good for Britain, but when they won, the sight of the Union Jack simply left me cold. This is not the fault of sport, but of politics. Of politicians who won’t say England, of broadcasters who think team GB is made of Welsh, Scottish and British people, and of supermarkets who incorrectly label English food as British. The logical me wanted to support my local team, but the emotional attachment I have is to England and not Britain.

This is where sport is interesting, where it taps into emotional identity. Often with a team it forms in childhood. You may choose a team because they are succesful, or your local team, or your parents team. But after many years watching them a bond builds up, which you can’t reason away and change to a new team because someone else becomes more succesful, or you move to a new locality.

But is the same is true for national identity? Is it built on a childhood attachment to a national team? My feeling is it is more than that. My feelings towards a British team I would have cheered many years ago are coloured by my negative feelings towards the British state. I could easily support a British team were these problems to be solved, but it would be because Britain is where England is, not because I felt in any way British.

Many different sports have different areas of representation. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland play football. In cricket, England and Wales play as one team. In rugby union, there is a joint Irish team, and the British and Irish lions for special tours. In rugby league, Great Britain and the individual nations compete in different competitions. Europe play in the Ryder Cup golf.

Sport is often a good gauge of your emotional national identity, regardless of logical concerns about the economy, devolution or politics. I have no problem hating our local football rivals, and supporting the county cricket team we share. I could have no problem with a British team, ignoring political issues and just following the sport, but politicians are using the sport for their politics.

Brown and others, trying to use sport to push on us the identity they want us to have will only lead to a backlash. The plans for a Team GB football team, which seems to have the support of only Sepp Blatter, the (English) FA and Unionist politicians (but certainly no fans) is a perfect example. The push towards a British team for British identity will fail on the existing strong identities of our national teams. Sport has long been the acceptable expression of nationalism, especially in England.

In some ways I would like to think that people questioning why we are forced together for sports would question why we are forced together for politics. But then I might become as bad as the Unionists, infecting the fun of sport with the cynicsm of politics. Let us keep sport free from that, so we may support who we like and enjoy their acchievements without it being tainted by being whipped aboard Brown’s Britishness bandwagon.



  1. […] public links >> nationality Olympics – Nationality and Identity Saved by oelcsg on Sun 07-12-2008 what Nationality am I? Saved by surfarama on Sun 16-11-2008 […]

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