International sport often captures the imagination of a nation. In victory or defeat, it unifies people through a collective sense of triumph or despair. As early as the late nineteenth century, the French had recognised the links between sport and patriotism. While they were reeling from defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the Empire was crumbling, the French identified British sport, with its discipline and sense of fair play, as a possible source of strength. Having adopted our sports, they went on to transform the European sporting map and produced the modern Olympic games, many great rugby teams and a revolution in cycling that led to the establishment of the Tour de France.
While sport cannot claim to solve political and racial problems singlehandedly, it can complement progress and serve as a potent symbol of change. South Africa’s against-all-odds Rugby World Cup triumph in 1995 is a good example of this. A painful history of racial tension was diminished, as the Springboks, once an emblem of prejudice and apartheid, became a symbol of inspiration to an entire country. It was a political triumph for Nelson Mandela, who wore the iconic Springbok shirt in front of a huge audience.
Ireland’s victory over England at Croke Park during the 2007 rugby Six Nations can also be seen as a symbolic sporting moment in a nation’s history. During the Anglo-Irish war, Croke Park had witnessed the killing of 31 Irish football spectators by the British army. This massacre became a symbol of British repression and Irish nationalism. It was not until 2007, when their main stadium was being renovated, that the teams met there again. Many expected the British national anthem to be greeted with hostility, but instead Irish fans reacted with quiet dignity and later celebrated a record victory (43-13) over England. For many, this represented a new stage in Anglo-Irish relations.
There is, however, another side to the coin: the commercialisation of sport and its impact. In football, the pull of club over country has grown, a trend driven mostly by money. Why should a modern footballer represent his nation for nothing when he could earn far more by helping his club do well? Taken to an extreme, this sentiment has the capacity to destroy the values of a game and to create a gulf between the grass roots supporters and the multi-millionaire celebrity world of footballers. France’s national team is perhaps the most recent example of this kind of culture. Their infamous strike at the 2010 World Cup humiliated the nation, with politicians openly condemning the group of players that were meant to be France’s ambassadors.
The problem is, as sport is constantly evolving, it is becoming more and more professionalised. Athletes are getting paid more for their performances, becoming stars that inhabit both the sporting and celebrity world, whilst historic clubs are being transformed into valuable corporations. No doubt commercialisation and globalisation have enhanced sport’s popularity over the last few decades; nonetheless, it has also led to divisions between fans and sportsmen. Many no longer see sports as entertainment, it is now considered to be just another form of employment.
Interestingly, some sporting nations have never experienced a sense of truly cohesive sporting patriotism. This often has deep historical roots. Spain suffers from the lowest sense of national pride in the whole of the EU according to UNESCO. For a country that won the recent World Cup and is world leader in numerous sports, this seems surprising. However, like many countries, Spain doesn’t have one collective history, so the concept of regionalism is important in explaining the lack of national pride. Sporting passion exists within individual parts of Spain, the most famous being Catalonia and the Basque Country, which see themselves as fiercely independent. Most football fans know ‘El Classico’ — Barcelona vs. Real Madrid— as a perfect example of this. Catalans claim to have won the 2010 World Cup, since seven of the Spanish team were from Barcelona’s team. The Tour de France boasts its own Basque team complete with Basque-born cyclists. Similarly, in the Basque region, Athletic Bilbao upholds ‘sacred principles’ of fielding Basque-born players.
While certain things have a habit of plaguing national sport, be it excess wealth that has come with the growth of commercialisation, or the complicated dynamics caused by a country’s historical roots, on balance, national sport is still a key component in national unity. With the Olympics less than a year away, it is important that we showcase our pride in Britain by focusing on our national sporting talents.