Lincoln Allison. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.
National Identity in Sport
Do we have to go into this every year? In the United States it is more important that the Red Sox beat the Yankees or the 49ers beat the Bears than the fact that some kid who was born in California is the best in the world at returning serve … Yes, there is a modicum of pride that Agassi and Sampras were born in the land of the free and the home of Divine Brown. But in America we’re less interested in where you’re from than how you play … What we don’t miss is people rooting for athletes because of their nationality rather than their skill. (Spander, 1995)
Thus Art Spander, the American sports columnist, reacting to being asked at the 1995 Wimbledon Tennis Championships how Americans would feel if Pete Sampras lost to the Japanese player Shuzo Matsuoka, given the economic tensions between the two countries. He might have turned his scorn on the Wimbledon crowd for the fanatical enthusiasm with which they greeted the performances of Greg Rusedski, a Canadian of partly English, partly Polish descent who had declared himself to be British from the point of view of international tennis.
The obvious hypothesis here might be the familiar invocation of American exceptionalism. The United States is in no sense an ethnic nation and international team games are only a tiny part of its sporting scene. They do sing their national anthem at sporting events, but not in the same sort of way that a Welsh rugby crowd sings ‘Mae hen wlad fy nhadau’ (Land of my Fathers) or a Scottish crowd ‘Flower of Scotland,’ both being tales of blood and sacrifice; thus in Britain children will pick up concepts of nationality entwined with their ideas about sport. Even their notion of colour may start with blue for Scotland, red for Wales, green for Ireland and white for England.
On a second look, though, the American exceptionalism may be rather less exceptional than it appears as presented by Art Spander. Experienced non-American commentators on the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984 were generally agreed that the crowds and the presentation were the most nationalistic they had experienced. Commentators from five continents (including neighbours Canada) reacted even more strongly against American media presentation of the Atlanta Games in 1996, accusing it of ‘chauvinism’ and ‘xenophobia.’ When an American representative team finds itself in a real battle with non-American teams as, for example, the 1976 ‘college’ Olympics basketball team did against the USSR or as successive US teams have in Ryder Cup golf since 1983, they arouse audience responses little different from those in nationalistic Europe. Indeed, most European press coverage following the 1999 Ryder Cup stressed what was described as the ‘excessive’ and ‘distasteful’ nationalism of the American crowd though it should be said that these comments were based on European golfing standards rather than European sporting standards defined more broadly. And that may be only a very superficial part of the national dimension in American sport, which can be said to be national at a far deeper level. American sport is dominated by games which are manifestly, proudly, even aggressively American. As with many other sports, in many other parts of the world, the expression of nationality lies more in the choice of sport than in the support for a team. Like much nationalism, the development of American sport did not take place entirely by accident, and absorbs a quantity of mythology. It is not merely myth, but official myth, for example, that baseball is an American game invented by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown in 1839. Baseball is as demonstrably English as apple pie (and as cricket). It was well known by that name and as ‘rounders’ in the eighteenth century. In more recent years Senator Jack Kemp, a former professional (American) footballer and 1996 vice-presidential candidate has favourably compared his sport with the ‘collectivist’ and ‘socialist’ milieu of European soccer.
But whether we are talking about nationalism or patriotism or the development and expression of national identity—the matter of distinction will have to be suspended for the moment—it is clear that a national dimension is an important part of sport. This dimension starts with the immense added meaning that a sense of shared national identity gives to watching a team and (sometimes) an individual perform. This is put simply by Alan Sharpe, describing the experience of watching Scotland play football: ‘For a time before, throughout and after [the match] I have the feeling that my personal worth is bound up with Scotland’s success or failure’ (Archer, 1976: 76). It is this intense feeling of identification which is the kernel of the relationship between sport and nationality.
There are, of course, other forms of identification, but none is so intense and demanding as a national identification, particularly in those many nations which are perceived by their members as being ancient and with a history of oppression, engendering a sense of loyalty that can be more like that to a tribe than to a modern institution. Thus there can be a collective sense of national humiliation when a national team is defeated; the event is taken to reflect on the state of the nation as a whole, quite apart from sport, and potentially on the standing of governments and politicians. In England, this is particularly apparent in the press treatment of defeats for the England cricket and football teams, as Joseph Maguire has documented (Maguire, 1995). But I have also been impressed by the intense collective sporting ambition and frustration experienced by the military-industrial elite in Thailand. This became apparent when I spoke to a conference in Bangkok in February 1995 at which the Thai Minister of Sport and most of the leading sports officials were present. It was clear that the central question of ‘the politics of sport’ concerned how national success might be organized and financed. Success in this case meant a high position in the medals table of the Asian Games or any Olympic gold medal. The significance of such success to the elite became evident a year later when Somluck Khamsing became the first Thai to win an Olympic gold medal (for boxing). A grateful government awarded him $1.5 million in cash, a BMW car and a PhD (in Physical Education). This was by far the most substantial award made by a government to an Olympic champion.
The organization of modern sport has readily absorbed a national dimension. As organized games became institutionalized in the British Isles between 1860 and 1890, it was absolutely natural to add ‘Englandv. Scotland’ and ‘England v. Wales’ to an imaginative list of fixtures which included ‘Oxford v. Cambridge’ ‘Gentlemen v. Players’ and (often) ‘Married Men v. Bachelors.’ England played Scotland at football from 1872, barring world wars, until disorders and other commitments intervened in 1990. The two nations have competed at rugby union since 1871. Since the Scottish, the Welsh and the Irish barely played cricket, the attractions of an international dimension were more difficult for an England cricket team, but the problem was solved in 1882 when an Australian team defeated England in England for the first time and the Sporting Times referred to the death and cremation of English cricket: competition for the ‘Ashes’ has remained one of cricket’s premier events ever since. In all three of these major sports, the code needed the stimulus of competition between nations and such competition was a natural expression of the national identities which people felt. ‘British’ teams have only come into existence because of organizations that insist on a nation-state identity, such as the Olympic Games. It is a paradox that Britain has been the origin of modern international sport which has blossomed, in the case of all three of the major English sports, into World Cups (in football from 1930, in cricket from 1975 and in rugby union from 1987), yet the existence of four national teams in football within the United Kingdom has often been seen as odd by outsiders. In some respects it is odd: that the Soviet Union, with its fifteen republics and ‘hundred nationalities’ and Yugoslavia, with its six republics and proverbial ethnic complexity, each fielded only one international football team while the British Isles had no fewer than five is odd. But the fates of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are illuminating in this respect.
If modern sport embraced international competition without question when it developed in the British Isles, the same assumptions were also made by the Olympic movement. The Olympics have always thrived on international competition, their symbolic internationalism coexisting with, and being parasitic upon, the national symbols of flags and anthems and the publication of medals tables. The competition was predominantly Anglo-American in the early years, and for 40 years was bound up with the Cold War. De Coubertin recognized the potency of national aspirations in the popularity of the games and successive presidents of the IOC (and major participants such as the Soviet Union) have been resolute against the banning of nationality motifs in the games, as against the inclusion of stateless persons (Hill, 1993; Hoberman, 1986).
The power of the meaning of national identity in sport is something that has always been recognized by the supposedly amateur and non-commercial Olympic movement. But the commercial aspect of this power and its consequences for overtly professional sport are enormous. Television inevitably changes the status of a national team: in the pre-television era, we must watch our local team; the national team may play hundreds or (in Australia) even thousands of miles away, but television allows us all to support a national team. National identity is the most marketable product in sport. An English audience for football which normally had a ceiling of around ten million could leap to 32 million for the England-Brazil World Cup match in 1970. Women compose a small (though increasing) minority of football fans, around 7-12 per cent, but they were 44 per cent of the audience for England’s games in the 1990 World Cup.
Both cricket and rugby have responded strongly to the commercial dominance of international games; in both cases the international level of the game was dominant even before the arrival of television. In neither game, for example, was it ever thought normal or proper for a player to turn down an opportunity to play for his country in order to play for his club. In both games the live televising of international matches was established at the outset of television’s history. In both cases, world cups were invented with the global television market in mind. In cricket, the emphasis on televised international cricket was increased by the affair of the ‘Packer Circus’ in 1977: the Australian entrepreneur and media magnate Kerry Packer, protesting the exclusion of his network from rights to televise the Australian team, contracted four international squads to play in a ‘World Series’ to be televised by his Channel 9. The affair ended in compromise, but it accelerated the process whereby top cricketers play many more international matches than they did and many fewer matches of any other kind.
In Association football, the balance was always very different. In most countries the game has been about passionate club affiliation and, except on great occasions like the World Cup, the international form of the game has been less important than the club form. I have elsewhere illustrated the significance of a week in May 1988 when a minor club game at Wembley Stadium in London (Burnley v. Wolverhampton Wanderers) was watched by more than three times as many people as watched two of the world’s top international sides (England v. Colombia) (Allison, 1988). In football, it has often been more important and more prestigious to play for Manchester United or Liverpool than for England or Wales. The authorities of the game in many European countries have been dominated by club interests which have been resistant to television and to any expansion of the international level of the game. One legendary English football club chairman, Bob Lord of Burnley, even threatened to burn any cameras that were brought into his stadium (Lord, 1963). In England, even recorded football was not regularly televised until 1964, more than a decade after live cricket and rugby were established and regular live football only came on television because of the competition from and influence of Rupert Murdoch’s global satellite network in the 1990s. It is this which has undermined the traditional dominance of the live supporter, created a new breed of superstars and ensured that international forms of the game (including, in this case, international club competitions) will dominate both money and status in the game.
Perhaps the best-known example of an expression of identification with a national team came from the late Bjoerge Lillelien when Norway beat England 2-1 at football in 1981. Lillelien, who was doing the television commentary, went into a kind of nationalist rant-reverie. Some of the most famous words in his monologue were, ‘William Shakespeare … Winston Churchill … Maggie Thatcher … we gave your boys a hell of a beating.’ He spoke, it should be noted, to a Norwegian audience in English, as if he wanted his domestic listeners to know that the message was to be received by a wider world (which it duly was: English radio and television have repeated the monologue, lasting just over a minute, at regular intervals since). Here is a fairly pure example of identification; Norway is not entirely homogenous ethnically, having two languages and a Lapp minority, but it is about as homogenous ethnically as anywhere on earth, with even 94 per cent subscribing to the official (Lutheran) Norwegian established church. Thus a commentator like Lillelien can say ‘we’ in a way that almost seems like family and speak for his audience as he does so; he is in quite a different position from a middle-aged white commentator describing the feats of a predominantly black basketball or sprint relay team in the United States (or, for that matter, in Britain or France).
It is important to note that this fairly pure and straightforward identification of an overwhelming majority of a population with a team or with any other sporting institution is very much the exception rather than the rule: most cases are more complex and the idea of nationality which is represented by any given expression of sporting nationhood is usually divisive in some way. There are, first, the multinational states, including those like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia when they existed, but also Spain and the United Kingdom. On the whole, sports associations and the relevant state agencies have been in favour of a single ‘national’ team per state and this has been encouraged by international federations. The United Kingdom is an exception in this respect; separate teams for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland or Northern Ireland existed originally because they represented the only possibility of international competition, but they have persisted because of a fundamental British separation of the ideas of state and nation and because of their commercial viability. The anomalies seem less now that both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have collapsed and their constituent nationalities are represented in international sport.
Georgians have admitted to me that they did feel pride when they saw an athlete from the ‘Soviet Motherland,’ usually a Russian, mount the rostrum to receive a gold medal at the Olympics or other major championships, even though they always thought of themselves as Georgians and have now come to reject the Soviet Union and want nothing to do with Russia. There were, so to speak, two separate and compatible levels of nationality. In Western multinational countries sporting sentiments have usually gone with the nation, even for those who accept or support the state. Catalans are notoriously poor supporters of the Spanish national football team and the Scots in particular tend to resent any ‘British’ team as being an English conception of ‘England with extras.’ The English cricket team is a complex institution in this respect: Wales and Scotland do not have teams that play at the highest (‘Test’) level of the game, so Welshmen and Scotsmen capable of playing at this level are treated as English. Even so, or perhaps for this reason, the late John Rafferty, one of Scotland’s best-known sports journalists, used to exhort his readers to support all-comers against England on principle.
Conversely, there are several cases of nations denied national sports representation vesting their passion in a club. I have written elsewhere of how F.C. Barcelona has always been associated with the Catalan language and Catalan nationalism and how this representative role intensified during the Franco period between 1939 and 1975 (Allison, 1986: 1-3). In the Soviet Union Dinamo Kiev and Dinamo Tbilisi were focuses of national enthusiasm for Ukrainians and Georgians respectively. In the post-Soviet absence of this function as a national institution these clubs have struggled to maintain interest. In 1995 I watched Dinamo Tbilisi play Durugi in front of two hundred spectators in a stadium designed to seat 80,000. The Croatian clubs Dinamo Zagreb and Hadjuk Split were also examples of an international dimension within a supposedly national league when they played in the Yugoslav competition. (In Britain fans often unconsciously mimic this situation when the Welsh teams in the lower divisions of English professional competition—Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham—play their usual English opponents.) An interesting set of stories about football and identification is to be found in Simon Kuper’s book Football Against the Enemy (Kuper, 1994).
It is often legitimate to question which nation a national team represents where there are different conceptions of national identity. The clearest case and one of the best researched is that of Ireland. Association football in Ireland follows state boundaries, with separate teams for Northern Ireland and the Republic. Rugby Union, on the other hand, has an all-Ireland team which includes both Southern catholics and Northern protestants (rarely Southern protestants, very rarely Northern catholics). There are, in any case, the Gaelic games devised and organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association since 1884; these are principally Gaelic football and hurling and there is little possibility of international competition in these sports, except that hurling is broadly similar to the Scottish Highland game called shinty and there have been compromised code games between Gaelic and Australian Rules football representative teams, despite their playing with different-shaped balls (Sugden and Bairner, 1986, 1993a, 1993b).
All of these sports represent a different island. Gaelic sports have had an image deriving most of their history of being deeply ‘fenian’ or nationalist, Celtic, anti-British and ‘taig’ (peasant). These aspects of their existence were most controversially expressed by the ban on participants in ‘British’ sports, which was lifted in 1971; there remains a ban on participants who have ever served in the British armed forces. At the other end of the spectrum, the Northern Ireland football team represents ‘hard line’ protestant Unionism; very few catholics attend games and the crowd tend to be hostile to catholic players selected for their own team, especially if they play or have played for traditionally catholic clubs such as Glasgow Celtic. By contrast, the Irish rugby team has relatively aloof and ‘West British’ supporters who think of the violent commitments of Irish politics as being anachronistic and rather embarrassing; Irish rugby tends to be supported by the middle classes who also play golf and go game fishing, two other sports organized on an all-Ireland basis.
This leaves the Republic of Ireland’s football team; of the four elements in this sporting scene, it is the most recent to come to prominence, having had fairly successful campaigns in the European Nations Championships of 1988 and the World Cups of 1990 and 1994, without previously making much impact on world football. All of this has been achieved under an English management team with no Irish connections (Jack Charlton and Maurice Setters) and a majority of English-born players of Irish extraction. The sense of identity which this team and its support suggests is a different kind of Irishness: cosmopolitan, urban, modern, flippant and with a strong affinity for English and American popular culture, though not for the English Establishment. Supporters strongly identify with a broad Irish diaspora rather than with catholic rural Ireland. There was a closely fought referendum on divorce in the Republic in November 1995; during the campaign there was much reference to a deep division between an ‘old’ and a ‘new’ Ireland. If the Gaelic Athletic Association is about the ‘old’ Ireland, the football team is strongly associated with the images of the ‘new’ Ireland (Doyle, 1993).
Ireland may be an extreme contrast to Norway in the fissiparity of its identity, but there are many countries that share some of its complexities. The Scottish football team, for example, also expresses significant vestiges of the religious and political wars which rent the British Isles in the seventeenth century. It may unite the politically opposed forces of
Unionism and Nationalism, but it does still represent a protestant Scotland. In one survey, 52 per cent of (catholic) Celtic fans said they would support the Republic of Ireland against Scotland and some catholic fans even attend international matches to cheer for the opposition (Bradley, 1995). For example, a letter of complaint in the Daily Record after the Scotland versus Poland game in May 1990 alleged that, ‘Some fans were even willing Jacki Dziekanowski to score for Poland’ (Daily Record, 21 May) (Dziekanowski was one of two Poles playing for Celtic at the time). By contrast, the identity sought and approved by Scottish rugby fans seems to have changed dramatically. Until the 1960s they were thought of as representing a form of conservative, middle-class unionism; certainly, they sang ‘God Save the Queen’ loudly and loyally. By the 1990s the approved anthem had become the nationalist (and anti-English) ‘Flower of Scotland.’
South African rugby and cricket teams in the period between the Nationalist Party’s victory and institution of apartheid and the onset of the sport boycotts, that is between 1948 and 1970, clearly represented ethnic minorities. The rugby team was identified with the Afrikaners and the cricket team with the English, though some Afrikaners played for the cricket team and some anglophones for the rugby team. The overwhelming non-white majority, if they took any interest at all, supported any opponent against the representatives of their oppressors. However, the ‘new’ South Africa, following the election of President Nelson Mandela in 1994, appears to have shown a broadening of identification with national teams that are still overwhelmingly white. The 1995 Rugby World Cup continued a process which seemed to begin with the 1992 Cricket World Cup of people classified as black, coloured and Indian under apartheid coming to support the rugby and cricket teams: this change was most clearly symbolized by President Mandela wearing a Springbok shirt at the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final. No symbol of South Africa had been more purely the property of the Afrikaners than the springbok and the African National Congress had originally been committed to its abolition.
The Afrikaner affinity for rugby exemplifies a further complexity of the relationship between sport and national identity: particular sports can come to be seen to exemplify the spirit of a nation. I have already remarked on a form of this relation in the case of American exceptionalism in sport, but there are many important cases of borrowed traditions. Association football is not easily portrayed as anyone’s ‘national’ sport; even in Brazil and Italy where its place in the culture is huge, it is recognized as a global institution. But there are several important cases of borrowed traditions. Indians are wont to remark that ‘Cricket is an Indian game accidentally invented by the English,’ arguing that the tactical subtlety of the game and its timescale are more suitable to Indian culture than to English. Rugby is also seen as the ‘national’ pastime of Afrikaners, Welshmen and New Zealanders. In the Welsh case, nationalists originally opposed Welshmen playing rugby as yet another form of English acculturalization, much in the spirit of those Irish nationalists who established the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884. It is also true that many of the great ‘Welsh’ rugby players were actually English; the Welsh Rugby Union defined players as Welsh if they played for a Welsh club, and in the greatest of all Welsh victories, the unofficial ‘world championship’ win over New Zealand in 1905, the Welsh captain, the pack leader and the fullback were all Englishmen. Yet it was already being argued that ‘Rugby is … the game of the Welshman.’ As Dai Smith comments, ‘Rugby had become “Welsh” … because … the social function had merged with sporting success to become a focus for nationality’ (Smith, 1984: 35). The combination of club life and communal support, of the wholehearted physical and emotional commitment which the game requires, of the singing and music of the crowd which can inspire it, had come to seem more Welsh than English. It served to assimilate and make Welsh that quarter of the population of industrial South Wales who had flocked over the border from England to share in the coal and steel boom of late Victorian Wales. These people were excluded by the core criterion of Welshness, the language. Rugby played an important part in creating a new Welsh identity, so much so that some twentieth-century nationalists have conceded that the only thing that unites all Welshmen is support for 15 men in scarlet jerseys. It has not been necessary for the creation of this identity that players all ‘represented’ the national community in the simple sense of being drawn from it. During the 1990s an increasing number of able rugby players from the Southern hemisphere redefined themselves as Europeans in order to make the breakthrough into international rugby. Shane Haworth, a New Zealander who claimed to have a Welsh grandmother, represented Wales at full-back in the 1999 World Cup; he let it be known that he had had a Welsh fleur-de-lys tattooed on one of his buttocks to complement the New Zealand fern which appeared indelibly on the other.
Nations, Nationalism, Patriotism
So far, I have discussed the importance of national identity in sport (and to sport), ignoring two huge questions: What is a nation? and What is the significance of nationalism (as opposed to national identity) in sport and of sport for nationalism?
‘Nation’ and the concepts derived from it are among the most shifting and elusive in the entire study of society, not least because they arouse so much emotion. The root idea behind the word is that of birth, as in nativity; that is to say, we should expect a nation to be something you are born into, national identity being defined at birth. This was an implication of the Latin nationem from which our modern word developed, but it meant something more like ‘clan,’ ‘tribe,’ ‘ilk’ or even ‘family’ rather than the huge, perhaps multi-ethnic, agglomerations we call nations today. Eighteenth-century English conceived of ‘nations’ in this way and it was normal to refer to the ‘nation of Smiths,’ the nations of Gypsies and ‘Hebrews,’ or even the ‘royal nation.’ Thus to some extent the way we talk about nations today comprises a modern concept. We refer to nations defined by religion (Israel, Pakistan, Belgium), by language (Germany, Italy) and by ideology (the United States of America), though in all cases the common characteristic is attached to a defined territory. Perhaps the most coherent concept is that developed by such German writers as J.G. Fichte in arguing for German unification in the nineteenth century. According to this version, a nation possesses a common language and shares a common territory; it has a common ‘spirit,’ the Volkgeist. The language relates to the territory through its names, its history and its story-telling, so that a common consciousness consists in the relation of language, history and territory. Unfortunately, this coherent theory applies to relatively few cases: it suggests that bi-lingual and multi-lingual nations are not really nations at all. Perhaps this thesis can be sustained in relation to Canada and South Africa, even about Belgium, but it seems to miss the point about Switzerland, Ireland and Wales. Nor can it explain the two dozen or so countries where Spanish is the principal language, and roughly the same number speak English. Many of these seem at least well on the way to developing a separate nationality, if they have not already got there.
The thesis that ‘nation’ is really a modern concept, in an extreme version, sees the apparent history of nationality in terms of the ‘myths’ and the ‘invented’ and ‘selected’ traditions that define nationality. Nations, according to this account, are principally the products of the national ideology promulgated by states and by movements seeking to form states. The state seeks, in Eugene Weber’s famous phrase, to turn ‘peasants into Frenchmen’; to do so it must emphasize the common language and history of France and eradicate the sense French citizens have that they are Basques, Catalans, Burgundians, Bretons, Corsicans, Flemings and so on (Weber, 1979). The national identity is mainly and usually a modern creation, which re-writes its own pre-modern history. If Ruritania contains a province called Mythologia, the Ruritanian government, through its propaganda and educational system, emphasizes the cases where Rurita-ians and Mythologians have fought or worked together and forgets or puts in a bad light those Mythologians who argued and fought against incorporation into Ruritania. And if the Mythologians achieve independence, or a powerful movement for independence, they do the opposite; the crucial factor, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, is that a person who regards himself or herself as Ruritanian finds obeying the orders of a fellow Ruritanian person or institution more acceptable than are orders from a foreigner. Thus the legitimacy of the ‘nation-state’ and some possible sources of its collapse (Gellner, 1983)
The alternative account of nationality is that the ethnic origins of nations are real and that no amount of the ‘invention’ or ‘selection’ of tradition can take away from this reality. This, naturally, is the account given or merely assumed by most nationalists: Gwynfor Evans takes it for granted that the Welsh who fought with King Arthur were Welsh in just the same way that he was (Evans, 1973, 1975), just as Zviad Gamsakhurdia takes it for granted that the Georgians whom St Nino converted to Christianity in the fourth century and even those encountered by Jason and the Argonauts more than 3,000 years ago were ancestors of modern Georgians (Gamsakhurdia, 1991). Both of these writers are on dubious ground in these particular claims, but there is scholarly support for the thesis that many modern national identities developed from an ancient ethnie (Smith, 1986). The extreme modernist thesis is, in any case, difficult for an English person to accept who knows their Shakespeare. In many instances Shakespeare seems to express a form of nationalism which is more fully formed than it ought to be. His words can still be used to stir a modern English team, especially Henry V’s speech before Agincourt:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here
And hold their manhoods cheap
On the other hand, Shakespeare can be seen as the voice of a peculiarly advanced nation-state, mythologizing the dynastic struggles of an earlier period into the language of English nationalism.
The extreme theses of ‘modernism’ and ‘ethnicism’ about nationality have little appeal. It seems reasonable to say that there are real ethnic histories and even shared national genetic traits, but that much of what makes a modern national consciousness or determines the identity of a given individual is the product of the invention and selection of tradition which has occurred in a modern and organized way. What makes an Allison a proud Englishman, a McInally an Irish nationalist and a McAllister a patriotic Scot (and any of them an American or Australian), must occur in modernity, since these are all national forms of the same tribal name and the tribe once ranged over much of the British Isles. Nevertheless, nationality must be treated as real whatever our theory of the role of mythology in its formation. Anybody who does not understand, in the cases of the Boers in South Africa or the Quebecois in Canada, that their combination of language, shared history and lore and sense of belonging to their territory have reinforced each other and created a nation, in the way that, say, the pieds noirs European settlers in Algeria never became a nation, is not going to understand them at all.
What, then, is nationalism? It is certainly not mere national identity, nor even the love of one’s nation, which is logically separate and goes normally by the name of patriotism. The addition of an ‘ism’ implies one of two things: a nationalist must either have a tendency to concern himself (or herself) with his nation, to orient his actions and judgements towards it, or he must believe in the nation as a morally demanding form of collective existence. (A ‘racist’ may, similarly, have a tendency to discriminate and make judgements racially without having a coherent theory of race or he may be a ‘racist’ in a doctrinal sense, separately or as well, because he thinks race is an important concept.) In general, nationalists, as opposed to patriots, must have a political project for the nation, whether for independence, cultural preservation or aggrandizement.
Sport and Nationalism
The message of Murrayfield this weekend was bigger than scrummaging techniques and line-out skills … Murrayfield was a message of Scottish identity and nationhood. (Guardian, 1991; Jarvie, 1993: 58)
Murrayfield is the Scottish national rugby stadium and the comment quoted above was made by a Guardian reporter on the atmosphere at the England-Scotland World Cup semi-final played there in 1991. It reminds us that the setting of international sport—flags, anthems, national colours and emblems, large crowds—are as easy and appropriate a setting for collective expressions of national identity as one could devise. It would seem a natural and easy movement from ‘a message of Scottish identity and nationhood’ to an expression of nationalism. The enormous fervour of the occasion, which some commentators found both shocking and a little frightening, could not but affect people in many ways and therefore would amount to a kind of ‘sporting nationalism.’ The words of ‘Flower of Scotland,’ sung with such fervour on that occasion, do, after all, refer to old battles and crow about the English being sent back across the border ‘tae think again.’ They also claim,
But we can still rise now
And be a nation again (Brand, 1978: 125)
Academic accounts of nationalism have tended to pay very little attention to sport. I have often attacked the assumption behind this lack of attention as a ‘myth of autonomy’ about sport which simply assumes that the activity is somehow inert in relation to other social and political phenomena (Allison, 1986: 1-26). On the other hand, figurational sociology offers us the basis of an argument that sport might be inert because it is a ‘mimetic’ activity, a product of the ‘civilizing process.’ It exists in a contained, parallel milieu to our normal interests and politics, its emotions, though not trivial or false, being within boundaries and not necessarily having any consequences beyond those boundaries: we watch the match, we care about nothing else as we do so, but we go home and give our ‘serious’ attention to something else (Dunning, 1992).
In the 1970s Phil Bennett, captain of a world-beating Welsh rugby team, is said to have addressed a tense and expectant changing-room something like as follows: ‘For 1500 years the English have polluted our land … exploited our resources … raped our women … Gentlemen, this afternoon we are playing the English.’ For all that intensity of national and apparently anti-English feeling Wales voted by over four to one in that period (in May 1979) to reject devolution and to leave the political union with England unchanged. It was precisely the industrial valleys of South Wales where the support for the Welsh rugby team was massive which were overwhelmingly against political change. This suggests at least the possibility that the ‘mimetic’ emotions of sport can act as a ‘safety valve’ in politics, that they would express and deflate nationalist sentiment rather than enhance it. It may have been the same when Eastern European countries vanquished the USSR at sport in its heyday, as in the victories of the (then) Czechoslovakia over the (then) Soviet Union at ice hockey in the 1970s.
There is no reason to suppose a normal, let alone universal relation between national sport and political nationalism. Each case is different and context is all-important. It may be, as I have suggested, a negative, defusing relation on occasions. It may be purely inert: many of the five million English people with Irish family connections support the Irish rugby team or the Republic of Ireland football team. But this does not necessarily imply support for Irish unification or any other project which might be construed as Irish nationalism. Support for a national team may be a purely cultural link, like support for a club team.
But it is equally apparent that sport can act in an important catalystic way with respect to nationalism: after all, it was a soccer match which started the war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 which killed 6,000 people and left 24,000 wounded (Kapuscinki, 1990). There are many cases in which it would be more reasonable to infer that national sport had helped a nationalist cause than that it has hindered or made no difference.
A set of test cases for the efficacy of sporting nationalism is provided by states that have attempted to use sport to inculcate a larger national sentiment which would over-ride smaller nationalisms or tribalisms. Perhaps the greatest of these is the Soviet Union. Stalin’s doctrine concerning the ‘Problem of the Nationalities’ prescribed a federal constitution and the maintenance of independent cultural institutions in the context of a strong centralized party which was to be the basis of real power (Stalin, 1947). When the Soviet Union seriously developed a sports policy after the Second World War one might have expected it to be used as a kind of gesture to the nationalities as it did with much of the arts and folk culture. But in fact the immense efforts were directed to success (primarily in the Olympics) for the ‘Soviet Motherland’ which could be fed back to the population as a source of pride. Individual nationalities were portrayed only as willing contributors to the vast diversity of the great motherland itself.
Canada had a similar policy of fostering national sporting success to encourage national unity. The ‘Proposed Sports Policy for Canadians’ presented to the Canadian Amateur Sports Federation in 1970 set out to develop elite athletes for this purpose: its early successes were such that Canada was nicknamed ‘the East Germany of the Commonwealth’ after its victories in the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton (Olafson and Brown-John, 1986).
On balance, both of these policies seem to have been failures. They undoubtedly did have a positive effect in encouraging identification with the larger territorial unit as Georgians have admitted to me, but it was not enough to counteract opposite tendencies and it collapsed as other reasons for identification were weakened. The Canadian policy rather blew up when its greatest success, the victory of Ben Johnson in the 100 metres sprint in the 1988 Olympics, was destroyed by a drugs scandal; the Soviet Union’s sports policy was increasingly exposed and derided as the state itself fell apart during perestroika after 1985. In both cases it can be said that the policy failed to produce real popular heroes who would seal the identification in popular culture. In both cases also there were sporting alternatives which could foster the smaller nationalism: the Quebecois had their ice hockey club teams, the Georgians and Ukrainians their club football teams. Ultimately, we can say the policies failed: the former Soviet republics now have their own sports teams and it would barely surprise anybody if that were not also to become true of Quebec within one or two decades.
African states may have had more success in using sport to weld diverse and even hostile tribes into national consciousness and support for the whole (Monnington, 1986). Support for the Nigerian or Camerounian football teams or for a what is now a tradition of Kenyan distance runners may have been important; but in these cases, as compared with Canada and the USSR, the basic forces of urbanization and modernization favour nation-building. It would be impossible even to suggest a qualitative assessment of how important sport is as a factor. The problem is the familiar one in social science of the unopenable box: a huge number of diverse influences affect millions of people who then perform complex actions, so that we can never say how important any factor was in a process.
Perhaps some of the greatest examples of sport to a nation-builder are more accidental, not without will, but certainly without a conscious strategy by state officials. Brazil is a vast and diverse land which has been successfully symbolized by a sporting institution, the football team(s) which won the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Names like Pele, Vava, Didi, Jair, Garrincha created a huge pride in being Brazilian. The enormous admiration which these players inspired abroad helped a nation divided by class, race and distance identify itself and with itself. The victories of 1978 and 1986 by Argentina pale into comparison in terms of their effect on the global image of the country, but were a powerful force within Argentina. Finally, Australia offers an instructive comparison with Canada; the wide range and historical consistency of Australian sporting successes have played a large part in moulding the country’s image and helping people to identify with it. Here, as in Brazil, there have been the superstars which Canada failed to produce, most notably cricketers of the calibre of Don Bradman and Ray Lindwall. Not only has Australia succeeded in absorbing millions of immigrants, but we must remember what a difficult proposition a successful federation of the whole country had seemed in the 1890s. Indeed, a political union between the eastern states and New Zealand seemed at one time more likely than the Australian state which came into existence and has persisted for over a century.
The British Isles present a situation which is quite different from the rest of the world. Here modern sport came into existence in the mid-nineteenth century, its genesis having everything to do with ‘civil society’ and nothing to do with the state. At this level it was always assumed that the sporting nation was different from the state and that (unlike almost everywhere else) national sporting representation did not have to be aligned with state boundaries. Only in exceptional cases where nation-state representation was required by international organizations (the Olympic Games) or by the necessity of producing a competitive team (the British Lions rugby team—now under threat from the pressures of other professional rugby competitions) was there international representation at the ‘British’ level. The question that arises concerns the effect that these uniquely stateless international teams have had on the maintenance of identity and the rise of nationalism. I have already reflected on the Welsh case, but the Scottish case seems quite different: in his study of Scottish nationalism Jack Brand sees sport (and especially the football team) as one of the institutions which has been important in maintaining identity and reviving nationalism. The mood and practices of sporting crowds have reflected rather than led political sentiment, but ‘the fact was that football kept the feeling of Scottishness alive’ (Brand, 1978: 138).
National Responses to Globalization
The British Isles may be an extreme case in another important sense, in that there is potentially a high level of political conflict between the forces of globalization and national sporting culture. It is important to note that globalization is an extremely complex and disputed concept (Falk, 1997; Ohmae, 1990, 1995) and that it is not within the scope of this chapter to examine it. But we cannot ignore the observation that the global governance of sport is relatively advanced, far more so, for example, than the governance of environmental regulation which is, in turn, more developed than the regulation of ‘human rights.’
In sport, global governance is conducted by a combination of institutions which might be described as hyper-typical of global governance generally. There are international organizations of immense importance, with leaders whose route to authority is so complex that they are virtually unaccountable: the International Olympic Committee (under the presidency of Juan Samaranch since 1980) and FIFA (where Jaou Havelange was president from 1974 to 1998 are the most prominent examples. To these must be added transnational corporations, particularly in the media and most notably the global empire of Rupert Murdoch, but also those (often in sports goods) that sponsor sport. Then there is also the growth of an effective international system of law, especially at the global-regional level: for example, the decision of the European Court of Justice on 15 December 1995 about the case of Jean-Marc Bosman, which effectively outlawed some important aspects of football’s ‘transfer’ system, may have a profound effect on the game.
There have been, during the 1990s, huge changes affecting British sports fans in all the major sports, all of which emanate from outside of Britain. Rugby League has changed in many ways, not least that it is played in the summer, as a result of its dependence on money from television, where the important corporate rivalries are Australian. Rugby Union has experienced an organizational earthquake as a result of the decision by the International Rugby Board in August 1995 to legitimize professionalism, a decision led by countries from the Southern hemisphere. Generally, sports fans have lost a wide variety of major events available on ‘terrestrial’ television as a kind of free public good. If cricket, specifically, has changed least, that is because it compromised earlier with the forces of television-driven global commercialism, during the ‘Packer affair’ of the 1970s.
Thus the forces which are deciding the future of British sport are predominantly international, while those which defined the shape it has had for the past hundred years were entirely national. One might expect a response of cultural nationalism, an attempt to protect ‘our sports,’ which could appeal to the power of the democratic state to counter that of the global market, much as the French insisted on exceptions for the ‘cultural’ products of film and television during the ‘Uruguay Round’ of negotiations which led to the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1992. Indeed, there have been some protests: Tony Banks, when a Labour Opposition MP, called for government intervention in the question of the loss of sport to terrestrial television, as has Sir Paul Fox, the former television executive. Banks was Minister of Sport from 1997 to 1999 and was involved in the institution of a European-approved but fairly weak system of ‘listing’ sporting events of national or cultural importance which were supposed to remain on free-to-air television. But perhaps the most significant defence of a sporting institution from global commercial forces was the intervention of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1999 to prevent British Sky Broadcasting, part of the Murdoch empire, from taking over Manchester United, the richest football club in the world. A former Conservative Cabinet minister, David Mellor, hosts a radio programme in which correspondents frequently complain about the interventions of the international football authorities, FIFA and UEFA, in the British game. Leaders of the two major parties have been involved in lobbying FIFA in support of England’s bid to stage the World Cup in 2006.
But it will prove very difficult to turn the simple emotional nationalism which is present when England play Germany at football into a sophisticated cultural nationalism which seeks to protect English (or British) sport from global governance. International sporting institutions have it in their favour that sport is naturally ‘global’: the interest in the ‘world’ championship and the ‘world’ record outstrip all else. Cultural and national boundaries are not real constraints on the movement of labour or media images in sport. Nor is censorship: even in Myanmar, where the government protects its citizens from most Western images, they watch the BBC’s football programme Match of the Day. In any case, the issues do not come on to the agenda in the shape of ‘national democracy versus global governance’: they are more likely to be between international forces and, in any case, there are many people who gain from or believe in internationalization. Thus there are important underlying issues between sporting nationalism and globalization, but they seem at the time of writing unlikely to be mobilized effectively.
In conclusion, the admission must be repeated that, like much else in the understanding of society, we can only suspect and suggest many of the connections between sport and nationalism: we can never really know. But certainly sport sometimes channels, sometimes releases, sometimes even creates complex and powerful nationalist sentiments. Pace Art Spander, there is nothing odd or unusual about seeing sport as a vehicle for the expression of national sentiment; indeed, for many people, from Brazil to Scotland, it has probably been the greatest vehicle for the expression of such sentiment.