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Keeping the flags flying

With England out of Euro 2012 on penalties, the flag-waving build up for the Olympics begins in earnest. Mark Perryman explores the changing shape of sports nationalism, and internationalism. 

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

David Hemery burning his way round the track to victory in the 400m hurdles, Mexico 1968. Mary Peters defying gravity as she hauled her frame over the high jump bar to lift the pentathlon Gold in Munich, 1972. David Wilkie winning in the pool, Montreal 1976. Coe and Ovett enjoying 1500m and 800m glory, Moscow 1980. Decathlete Daley Thompson acting the golden cheeky chappy, Los Angeles 1984. Great Britain beating Germany in the men’s hockey final, Seoul 1988. Christie and Gunnell triumphant on the track, at Barcelona 1992. Steve Redgrave promising he’d never be seen near a boat again after winning his fourth straight Gold with Matthew Pinsent at Atlanta 1996, before doing precisely that to win his fifth and final Gold, once more with Pinsent, at Sydney 2000. Kelly Holmes grabbing an eye-popping 800m and 1500m golden double against all the odds in 2004. Hoy, Pendleton, Adlington and Ohuruogu leading Team GB’s Gold medal charge to fourth in the Beijing 2008 Medals Table.

From a late sixties childhood to twenty-first century fiftysomething, I can measure my life out in the glow of the quadrennial summer Olympics, with each and every Games remembered for the achievements of others, as well as our own. 1968 for Bob Beamon’s leap beyond the limits of human capacity in the long jump. 1972, the impish Olga Korbut tilting her head at the close of her floor routine in the gymnastics hall. Cuban Teofilo Stevenson supreme in the Olympic boxing ring, winning three consecutive Golds, in 1972, 1976 and 1980 - an amateur heavyweight boxer who never turned professional despite the millions of dollars offered to him by US promoters. And so it goes on.

Having just returned from Euro 2012, I can report that this co-existence of sport nationalism and internationalism persists and, with a home Olympics due to begin in less than four weeks, is likely to dominate this summer of sport. The cosy assumption of some leftists that nationalism and internationalism are polar opposites was largely subverted in the past two-and-bit weeks out in the Ukraine and Poland - as it has been at every World Cup and European Championship that I’ve been lucky enough to follow England to since Euro ’96. At these tournaments, some of the nastiest versions of nationalism share space with the most popular forms of internationalism. Never mind the single European currency - for the duration of the Euros it is football, not a bank note, that unites Europe and, too, divides us for ninety minutes.

In his classic work on the origin and spread of nationalism, ‘Imagined Communities’, Benedict Anderson pinpointed the persistence of the nationalist impulse, notwithstanding the counterclaims of the hyper-globalisers: “Almost every year the United Nations admits new members. And many ‘old nations’, once thought fully consolidated, find themselves challenged by ‘sub-nationalisms’ which, naturally, dream of shedding this sub-ness one happy day. The reality is quite plain: the ‘end of the era of nationalism,’ so long prophesied, is not remotely in sight. Indeed, nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.”

The 2012 London Olympics will take place on the cusp of this persistent irritant. England have just competed at Euro 2012, the only non-nation state to do so. Should the micro-states of Montenegro, Liechtenstein or Andorra ever qualify for a tournament they will have more of a right to call themselves a country than England - with no anthem, parliament, currency or head of state to call our own. The enthusiasm for the England football team might not be what it once was, but it most certainly is for England and is not to be confused with Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or any of the other labels that confuse both foreigners and ourselves.

Writer on ‘Britishness’, Arthur Aughey, has a benign view of this situation: “Britishness involved an idea of the people and of its identity rather different from that of nationalism.” However, this is less convincing with Scotland on the brink of an independence referendum, and with the undeniable renewed popularity of the St. George flag in England every other summer since Euro ’96 (except Euro ’08 for which we failed to qualify), whereas before its presence was nearly non-existent. Add to this the English sport successes of winning the Ashes in 2005, 2009 and 2011, and the Rugby World Cup in 2003 as England too. Eric Hobsbawn’s observation “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people” is peculiarly appropriate to England, particularly since the beginnings of the devolution settlement in 1997 and now, we have the new dynamic of First Minister Salmond seeking to lead Scotland out of the Union within the next two years. Whether we like it or not, 2012 - with both the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics - will be the year of the Union Jack, stylishly redesigned for the Team GB kit by Stella McCartney. But whether this is a temporary respite from the seemingly irreversible drift to a disunited Union, or a more profound revival of ‘Britishness,’ remains to be seen.

Mark Perryman is the author of the newly-published ‘Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be’.

About the author

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest, The Corbyn Effect, is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available here.


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