The Uniting Power of Sport?

Where the peoples of other sovereign-states unite behind their national sporting teams, the British uniquely fragment. How does this happen, and what effect might this be having on British society?

Image courtesy of Simon Johnston, © 2008, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Simon Johnston, © 2008, some rights reserved.

This past summer the British public joined together to get behind Team GB at the Olympic Games. People from all four home nations cheered with equal enthusiasm as the Union flag flew atop the tallest flagpole and the British national anthem rang out in victory. For two weeks, the British were more united in the context of sport (even in football) than ever before, their typical tribal loyalties being unusually muted. However, as we look ahead to the major sporting events of the next four years, are we back to business as usual? There will be four Six Nations championships, the 2014 Football World Cup, the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Euro 2016 and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. At each of these major championships, the British will do something that no other sovereign-state in the world will do. They will fragment, and Britain will become a hotbed of partisan inward-looking nationalism.

I consider international football and rugby especially, because they are the most televised and followed sports in the United Kingdom1 and yet in them the British compete by nation not by state. Many individual sportsmen and sportswomen also compete internationally as Scottish, Welsh, English or Northern Irish, especially in certain sports such as golf. The Commonwealth Games are unusual in that unlike the Olympics, British athletes will compete in a multi-sport tournament by constituent nations and not by sovereign state. It is, however, important to remember that in many other sports, individuals do compete as British. Many sports teams also compete as British, including on exceptional occasions football and rugby (Team GB/British and Irish Lions). Others, such as international hockey, compete nationally outwith of the Olympics but as British at the Olympics. It would therefore seem that which sport you compete in and at which events determines which nationality you compete as. For most other countries this makes no difference whatsoever, but for the British it gets complicated and indeed divisive.

Every other sovereign-state seemingly comes together to unite behind a single team that carries that nation’s hopes and dreams. Collective elation in victory or collective trauma in defeat provides a bonding experience that binds disparate peoples and regions together. Consider the example of the United States. A vast country, spanning a continent and comprising of states with high levels of regional autonomy, distinct cultures, histories, identities, and many of which existed as independent entities prior to union. Apart from the obvious difference in scale, not too dissimilar from the British example it could be said. If Britain has four teams for one small, relatively homogenous sovereign-state, should not the USA have 50 for a much larger and more disparate one? Alongside the United Kingdom there are only four other sovereign-states who are not members of FIFA; the Federated States of Micronesia, Monaco, Nauru, and Vatican City. Similarly, in rugby, the United Kingdom is the only sovereign-state to be represented by its constituent nations. So, we are indeed an exception in the world of international sport, but why is this?

It is primarily due to history and the chronology by which certain major international sporting organisations came into being. Because football and rugby were invented in Britain, regional and national associations were formed here first. In fact, the very first ‘international’ football match took place between England and Scotland in 18722. It wasn’t until later as these sports spread abroad that international associations were formed comprising of sovereign-states. Britain’s national football associations outdate FIFA, the world governing body of football. Similarly, the national governing associations of British rugby outdate the IRB, the international governing body of rugby union. As a result, from the founding of these governing bodies, the British national teams were admitted in their own right. So, it is really due to historical accident that in international football and rugby England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exist as independent participants at all. Their enduring longevity is, I surmise, down to their institutionalisation both within world governing bodies and, indeed, the popular consciousness.

Does this fragmentation or indeed the lack of reform to bring the UK into line with the rest of the sporting world tell us anything about British society?

The tribalism and sheer animosity displayed between fans of rival home nations is often startling. Such internal rivalry is by itself, I argue, relatively benign. There are intense regional loyalties in most countries and these are played out daily in sporting contests, often with rich histories. But the difference is that in other countries they are internal divisions played out internally and smothered by national unity when competing internationally. By contrast, British divisions are exported and played out on the international stage to an international audience. This is well exemplified by the ‘anyone but England’ mentality frequently adopted by Scots and Welsh even when England is playing traditional or more recent military foes such as Germany or Argentina. Many struggle to understand how despite our long common history, we have failed to nurture a common ‘American style’ national identity that unites and pervades our diverse society. This failure is especially telling in our descent into tribalism on the international sporting stage. What does our refusal to reform and unite our teams in the most popular sports tell us about ourselves? Is this us laying bare to the world our insecurity with our own identity? Do our regional loyalties represent a deeper social schism or a deep undercurrent of secessionism? A counter-argument is that only a country that is very secure in itself and its unity could allow such unchecked partisan rivalry to occur within it. Similarly, we must not forget the institutional interests of certain national governing bodies whose very existence could be threatened by more unified national teams. That Britain can and does compete successfully under a Team GB banner in many other sports supports the idea that institutional interests may be in play. The whole issue raises many fascinating and deeply profound questions. Are British children wearing national football strips and following parental and societal leadership being encouraged to develop regional rather than British identities from a young age? Is it healthy for society to fragment like this and what does this look like from abroad? Is sport dividing us from each other and undermining national unity? Does our insularity blind us to these phenomena? Or is it all harmless fun and sport is one of the few ways that Britons can show their regional identities? What is clear is that due to historical accident Britain really is a unique exception in major international sport, but I do wonder for how long the rest of the world will continue to abide this.

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