Tuesday, 29 July 2014

National identity and sporting success

The success of GB in sport (whether as one nation or several) over recent years has been a puzzling rollercoaster, from the glorious overachievements in London 2012 and the 2013 summer Ashes to the humiliations of Brazil and back up to Glasgow 2014. Much of this wild variation is down to chance of course: the margins are so fine in elite sport these days between success and failure that it really doesn't take much to tip the balance. By contrast with 2013 UK riders had a disastrous Tour de France in 2014, but had both Froome and Cavendish not been involved in serious crashes then who knows what might have happened.

However there is another possible explanation for the variation that occurs to me: GB's self-image as a nation and the effect this has on those who represent it in sport. Yesterday's performance in the India test notwithstanding it is in cricket and football that England's recent slump has been most embarrassingly acute. And I do not think it any coincidence that it is these sports that are most affected by a particularly narrow-minded and jingoistic image of British national identity. Support for the English football team seems inextricably bound up with flags of St George (the Palestine-born patron saint of Bulgaria, Romania and Iraq) and evocations of the memories of 1966, 1945 and 1918. In this year's final the debate in England seemed to centre around which of England's wartime foes (Argentina or Germany) one was to hate least. This despite the fact that one war ended over 30 years ago and the other nearly 70.

Cricket is perhaps less overtly jingoistic, but did not Norman Tebbitt propose the so-called cricket test to define which immigrant communities subscribed best to his narrow view of Englishness? Certainly in cricket as in football, supporters of the England team seem almost exclusively mono-ethnic: the classic close-ups of the crowd from test matches being of portly white men, whether elderly and snoozing under straw hats or younger, more sunburnt and balancing unfeasible numbers of pints of lager as they wend their way through the seats.

So it seems to me that in both football and cricket the nation's dominant self-image is an important factor in the success or otherwise of the national team. And in both of these sports it is the nation of England (rather than GB or the UK) that is in question. Not that Scotland and Wales don't have football teams, but... well, you know what I mean. The thing is that it seems to me that England's overt self-image has shrunk and darkened over the last year or so in a way that cannot possibly be helpful to the establishment of a positive and optimistic ethos of success in the national teams.

Although less than 10% of the UK electorate (4.3 million from a total electorate of 46 million) voted for UKIP in the 2014 European election, to listen to the media and politicians you would think that Britain had spoken with one voice in support of a narrow, petty-minded and negative view of the state of the nation today. UKIP's policies seem to me defined by negativity: anti-Europe, anti-immigration and anti-liberalisation. They may not be openly racist or homophobic but the implication is there- they promote an exclusive sense of national identity predicated on hatred and distrust of "the other."

Far from challenging this view of ourselves politicians from the major parties have seemed keen to pander to it, banging on about how tough they are going to be on immigration, or how isolated within Europe. David Cameron's position on the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker was a humiliating embarrassment, but it seemed to play well in the tabloid press.

The thing is that this small-minded, inward-looking view of our national identity cannot possibly act as a motivating force for national teams. And sure enough, whilst teams like Holland or Columbia in the World Cup seemed empowered and liberated by the opportunity to play for their country, England looked introspective, unsure and out of their depth. They looked as if, far from relishing the challenge of mixing it with the greatest players from every continent, they couldn't wait to get back on the flight home for a decent cup of tea and a proper English breakfast.

So if British (and specifically English) national identity is such a negative force in sports like football and cricket, why such conspicuous success in London 2012 and Glasgow 2014? The core reason, I believe, is that at the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games athletes have been able to harness a different, more pluralist and less constricting view of their national identity. Carol-Anne Duffy put it beautifully in her poem Translating the British, 2012: "we say we want to be who we truly are,/now, we roar it. Welcome to us." There is less jingoism in athletics and less mono-ethnicity. One of the undisputed stars of 2012 was the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, another born in Mogadishu. The Olympic opening ceremony celebrated a vision of Britain that had most UKIPers and right-wing Tories spluttering into their fine french wines and the spirit of the entire Games was founded on openness, welcoming of foreigners and celebration of diverse national and cultural identities. Small wonder that the British athletes found this inspiring in a way that England's footballers and cricketers could only dream of.

The Commonwealth Games, I am delighted to see, has captured this same inclusive spirit, and with it the boost to the performance of Home Nations sports(wo)men. In fact in the Commonwealth Games there is another dimension of pluralism. British competitors represent their home nation, rather than GB, yet seem to be doing so in the context of a larger feeling of pride in the country as a whole. So a Commonwealth Games athlete can be Scottish (or English, Welsh, Northern Irish, Manx, Jersey or Guernsey) and British, as well as perhaps being Muslim or Sikh and of Asian or Caribbean ethnic origin too. And the crowds go along with this too. I witnessed Scots cheering on English athletes for God's sake!

These are inclusive, empowering and uplifting identities to celebrate and it is hardly surprising to me that they seem to give competitors a boost, enabling them to over-achieve in a truly impressive way. Just as it is hardly a surprise that a narrow, introspective and negative prevailing national identity hamstrings our footballers and cricketers.


  1. Hmmm. There is a strong suspicion among some of Scotland's more cynical dwellers that the heavily-emphasised "home nations pish" is something to do with a certain upcoming referendum. This may well be paranoia and it would be interesting to look up previous CWG broadcasting to see if the same wording was used to the same extent. It is certainly a very "Better Together No Thanks" message.

    The surprise re cheering on English athletes has come from a strong political / media message that the vote for independence is based on hatred of the English. People have bought this to the extent that reportedly English athletes were asking for advice before the games as to what to do when the inevitable booing rang out. Again the more cynical of us might wonder if this has been part of a deliberate attempt to parcel the vote for independence as scary nationalism, instead of a civic and democratic rejection of the status quo and a positive buy-in to a different way of doing things.

    Here endeth the sermon!

  2. I don't really think the coverage is any different this time round. London-based sports correspondents starved of success to report have always appropriated the victories of Home Nations athletes. Hasn't Andy Murray always been British when he wins stuff? And my surprise at Scottish crowds cheering on English athletes doesn't come from any media message, but from decades of experience of Scottish football and rugby supporters, for whom the team to cheer on is always Anyone But England.

    My point is that sports like athletics and swimming and cycling seem to be free of the sort of exclusive and antagonistic version of national identity that plagues football. So 'better together' and 'pro-independence' Scots can stand equally proudly on the podium under the saltire, singing Flower of Scotland. And even English athletes can escape from the petty-minded, inward-looking image of Englishness that is currently dragging the country down.