Is it Time to Wave the White Flag on Sporting Patriotism?

sporting patriotism

With the Football World Cup just around the corner, we’re bound to start seeing a few more St George’s crosses than normal adorning houses, pubs and cars across England in the coming weeks. It’s amazing how a few people kicking a ball around a field can reveal Joe Public’s apparent national pride more than anything else. It may only really last for a month every four years, but by Jove we’re jolly proud of our Englishness when we support our boys’ inevitably unsuccessful attempt to regain the glory days of 1966.

I don’t think being proud of where you come from is a bad thing. When it comes to sport, I’ve been fortunate enough to see this from both perspectives: I’ve had the honour of wearing an England (or Great Britain) shirt and singing “God Save the Queen” on an international hockey pitch when representing my country in competition. I’ve also supported British athletes in countless sports in stadiums and arenas, not to mention the comfort of my own living room. I am proud of my Jersey, English and British roots. I have always found it hard to understand it when a teammate or a famous sportsperson doesn’t seem to demonstrate their own pride in that England or GB badge through how they are going about things. Regardless of not quite playing in it myself, I felt proud to be British when Team GB had such an amazing London 2012.

This brings us to an interesting point. Lots of our medallists (and in fact British representatives in general at the Olympics, including many coaches) weren’t born in Britain. I pass no judgment in mentioning these names, but Mo Farah and Sir Bradley Wiggins, undoubtedly two of Britain’s best-known Olympic gold medallists, were born in Somalia and Belgium respectively. In fact 60 out of 542 Team GB athletes were born outside Britain. Of course, every one of these athletes met the required eligibility criteria to compete for Team GB. For the most part, the successes of our Brits were celebrated regardless of their birthplaces. Personally, I’m glad this was the case.

The eligibility criteria for athletes to compete for a nation vary across different sports. Factors such as place of birth, residency, dual passports or even the birthplace of an athlete’s parents or grandparents can all open and close doors to representative honours depending on the sport. There are lots of other examples of sportspeople competing for different countries to where they were born, grew up, or first gained representative honours. British athletics has accepted a number of athletes from other countries, many of whom have been criticised for being ‘plastic Brits’ (again, not my opinion, just a widely-used label). Many of the most famous England cricketers from recent years are of South African origin – Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott, Matt Prior, to name a few. The England and GB hockey teams have some currently (or soon to be) eligible players who have previously represented Ireland at international level. Rugby union has seen many nationality switches in both directions between countries such as South Africa, New Zealand, Fiji, England, Scotland, Italy and Wales. A number of Kenyan distance runners have famously switched nationality to represent Qatar, Bahrain and the USA.

Not every sportsperson’s change of nationality is welcomed. There was a recent story about the possibility of Aljaz Bedene, a Slovenian, competing for Britain in the Davis Cup after applying for a British passport. This news has been met with mixed reactions. Dan Evans (another British tennis player whose Davis Cup place could be under threat should Bedene be allowed to compete) tweeted, “So a guy is becoming British who has already played for his country… Doesn’t quite sound right to me!”. This isn’t new to British tennis. Greg Rusedski represented Canada before switching to Britain in 1995 and he experienced mixed levels of British support. If we’re honest, he was backed when he was winning and criticised when he was losing. We want GB to do well and it’s interesting how quickly we can overlook or highlight a person’s nationality depending on how we perceive our team to be getting on. Laura Robson, the current no. 1 British female, was born in Australia and didn’t move to the UK until she was six. When she won a silver medal at London 2012, nobody seemed too worried about that…

Of course, there are some famous historical examples of national pride being taken to extremes, or simply hidden behind in an attempt to justify absolutely immoral behaviour, terrorism and terrible acts of war. In sport, misguided ‘national pride’ has contributed considerably to institutionalised doping, corruption and sport’s symbolic status being used in controversial or extreme ways. To me though, these things are a world away from a person’s decision about which flag to wave on their victory lap.

It seems to me that our acceptance of athletes who transfer and their decisions on which nation to represent is dependent on a number of factors. People make assumptions about the identity of athletes who make a switch based on essentially superficial characteristics such as accent, success and ostensible ‘Britishness’. Some sportspeople are judged negatively because their motivations to change nationality are (allegedly) based on money, opportunism or ambition… even though the people making these judgments don’t know what their actual reasons are. It should also be mentioned here that for whatever reason, we judge sport differently to other aspects of life. Hypothetically, let’s say you have an ambitious friend who moves abroad to take up an opportunity for a job with better pay. If he or she ends up applying for citizenship in their new land, would we judge them in the same way as an athlete who essentially does the same thing? Athletes who compete for one nation before switching to another also seem to be considered differently to those who are simply born in a different country to the one they represent.

There’s almost always more to these decisions than meets the eye. Let’s think about the Kenyan runners who have ‘become’ Qatari. One widely held assumption is that they are only doing it for money. It may be a factor, but there is almost certainly more to it than this. It could lead us to question whether the Olympics really is the ‘best of the best’. If it was, there might not be a cap on the number of athletes who can compete on behalf of each nation. In recent times, Ethiopian long distance runners, Kenyan middle distance runners and Jamaican sprinters could very possibly have filled up most of the places in various  Olympic finals based on their ability and personal bests. Maybe it isn’t surprising that a Kenyan runner chooses to change nationality to enable himself to earn a living, compete at the very highest level and realise the Kenyan running dream – even if it isn’t for Kenya. Many South African athletes switched nationality as part of the fallout of Apartheid and other sportspeople have changed passport as a result of seeking asylum. It isn’t always as simple as wanting to represent your country at your sport.

Don’t forget, some athletes born and bred in Britain give back less, compete with considerably less pride and passion, and invest their prize money in Monaco to avoid paying taxes. Where you’re from isn’t always a good indicator of how proud you are to wear that shirt and sing that anthem. I am very proud to be British and I don’t think I would want to change my nationality to try and enable some of my sporting ambitions to come to fruition. However, clearly this isn’t always a simple answer to a simple question, because every athlete’s individual situation is undoubtedly different. I’m sure it’s never an easy decision to make. We never know the whole story and we make judgments based on perceptions and assumptions, both good and bad. As far as I’m concerned, the most important thing is that an athlete always does his or her best and represents his or her team or nation with pride and honour. I don’t really have much hope or expectation, but I’ll be supporting “Roy’s Boys” in Brazil in a month’s time. If another team or other players set the football world alight though, I’ll get excited by and enjoy that too. Different sport of course, but I played for England in a World Cup in 2006. I’m very proud of that… but true sporting pride is about much more than a waving a flag or a wearing a shirt.


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