Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

18 August 2008

Team GB’s Olympic Success: Should We Be Proud?

I suppose this morning’s newspaper headlines were inevitable: ‘It’s great to be British!’; ‘Britannia rules the Games!’. It was, after all, a terrific weekend of success for Team GB at the Beijing Olympics, and Great Britain sat in third place in the medals table at the end of Sunday’s events: an unwonted sporting triumph for ‘the country’, indeed!

That other GB, Gordon Brown, inevitably chimed in. The inappropriate headline I came across in Yahoo! News read, “Brown hails UK’s golden weekend”. Inappropriate because there was no mention of the UK as such in the article’s quotes from Gordon:

“I want to send my congratulations to Team GB on this golden weekend for British sport. Eight gold medals and seventeen medals in total in one weekend is a superb and unprecedented achievement. The whole country has been watching and has been thrilled by Team GB. We are immensely proud of what they have achieved so far, and inspired by their performance. Our Olympians’ talent and dedication represent the very best of Britain and we look forward to another great week of British sporting success”.

Britain, Britain, Britain. Well, I suppose I should stop being a (typically British, English?) misery guts and should just be proud of our sportsmen’s and sportswomen’s successes, as GB says. And, indeed, I was and am proud, not least – but also not only – because the great majority of those medal-winning contestants were English. In most patriotic English people, indeed, rare victories such as these stir up those old sentiments of being ‘proud to be British’ – feelings suffused with memories of our once routinely ‘world-beating’ Empire. This is the way English patriotism has traditionally been expressed; and it’s a more obviously English-British patriotism now than ever, as one no longer feels that the triumphs of the Scottish medal winners (such as triple gold medal-winning cyclist Chris Hoy) really quite belong to ‘us’ (i.e. to us English) any more, if they ever did. In fact, I’m sure that the Scottish media are following and proclaiming the successes of Scottish contestants as Scottish victories in the first instance, and then British only secondarily. No such possibility of celebrating English success: no, that’s British.

The political dividends of all this are obvious; hence, the intervention of GB (the Prime Minister, that is). It’s a chance to reaffirm and orchestrate English people’s identification with Britain as ‘the country’, in our leader’s favourite phrase. As usual, however, this technically misses out Northern Ireland, as the PM is wont to do. In this instance, he’s got official ‘permission’ to do so in that ‘the country’ is indeed referred to as ‘Great Britain’ in the Games, not as the UK. This is one of those historical anomalies. Apparently, people from Northern Ireland can opt to represent the Republic of Ireland, if they wish, so it is in fact only fully a Great British team; plus ‘Great Britain’ (initials GBR) was the name adopted for the UK team by the International Olympics Committee for the 1908 Games. However, clearly, calling the team ‘Great Britain’ facilitates all those stirrings of patriotic emotion, as one calls to mind the ‘greatness’ of the Empire. In addition, ‘Britain’ carries the overtones of nationhood; while ‘the UK’ reminds us that ‘the country’ is merely a state, not a nation.

The ultimate political agenda really converges on the 2012 Olympics: will the country still be represented by Team GB (possibly, for the last time); or will these be the first Games where there will be separate teams for Scotland and – what? – the United Kingdom (of England, Wales and Northern Ireland)? Or, if you follow the rationale for calling the present UK team ‘Great Britain’ (i.e. it diplomatically leaves the dual allegiances of Northern Irish people out of play), would this be a ‘Team England & Wales’, or even separate English and Welsh teams (whether for sporting reasons only or because England and Wales had separated politically, too)? Let’s just hope that they wouldn’t try to continue calling an England / Wales team ‘Great Britain’ – I wouldn’t put it past them! More importantly, if Scotland has gained its independence by then, the London Olympics will not be the British Games at all; but the – yes – English Games (as are, let us remember, half the sports involved – English inventions, that is).

Heaven forbid! Such a possibility must be ruled out and prevented at all costs! Billions of pounds of costs, in fact, in hosting the 2012 Games. Just as the 2008 Games are China’s chance to present a modernised, benign image to the world – forgetting about the would-be independent regions of Tibet and Xinjiang – so the London Olympics are the UK government’s lifeline for holding on to at least the idea of a unified Britain beyond the likely Scottish referendum dates of 2010 or 2011. ‘If we can just use the present Games to rekindle pride in Great Britain’, you can hear the politicians say, ‘then we might be able to get “the whole country” to rally round the task of putting on the “best Games ever” in London 2012; and then, who knows, we might have succeeded in whipping up so much renewed pride in being British, that the Union might just survive’.

The bet is on. Will the 2012 Olympics be ‘Britain’s showcase’ or its swansong? You can bet your life, however, that the politicians will do their utmost to prevent ‘Great Britain’ from breaking up before 2012! After all, if we want to finish fourth in the medals table that year, we couldn’t do so as just England, could we? I wouldn’t bet on that not happening, though!



  1. Whether the majority of “Team GB’s” medal winners are English or not, the fact that they compete under the flag of occupation which blights my country means that their achievements mean no more to me than those of athletes from Peru or Korea. There is no reason of course why England cannot compete at the Olympics as other stateless nations do, it just requires the political will to make it happen which at the moment is only coming from the Scottish government unfortunately. The British nationalist orgasm-fest being endulged in by both the government and their friends in the media has been quite nausiating to see though.

    Comment by Little Englander — 18 August 2008 @ 10.03 am | Reply

  2. I agree the coverage is nauseating. Break up the UK for everything but defence in my book. As a Welshman I feel proud that ‘our’ athletes have so far won 3 gold medals and fair play to the English and Scots too. But its not about how many medals – I just want to see my nation compete on the world stage. I feel no ties to being British (other than I live on the island of Britain). I’ve just read about Seb Coe wanting the mountain biking competition to be in Sussex (flat!?), while obviously ‘we’ want it in Wales. As it’s a going to be a London games that leaves out most of Britain anyway.

    Comment by Hieronymous — 19 August 2008 @ 2.45 am | Reply

  3. first and formost, congratulations to all the competitors for their great achievements so far on behalf of England Scotland & Wales…formerly known as the UK !!….it would be churlish and ungrateful not to be proud of their prowess and dedication on behalf of their respective nations.
    However the prospect of the head of the Raj useing these great athletes as a political tool to further his own Unionist (ie, British) agenda horrifies me, I think we are in for some nausiating days after the games are over, god help us if the political scene is unchanged in 2012.

    Comment by Big Englander — 19 August 2008 @ 10.41 am | Reply

  4. “No such possibility of celebrating English success: no, that’s British.”

    Completely missing the point. In the Times yesterday there was an article headlined “Find me an Australian”, which started off musing on “Britain’s” usual achievements of quarter final penalty exits, Ashes whitewashes and defeated rugby champions. This seems to reflect the way of it – that the English think they are Britain, so it is all one and the same. Right down to celebrating these Olympics successes as a chance to get one over the Australians. The trouble is it is only the English that have this chippiness to the Australians – us Scots tend to rather like them as a nation that normally beats the English and causes them great pain in doing so. Strip the current medals down to what was wholly English, and the Aussies would probably still even now be ahead.

    So no victim mode for the English here, the problem is their own arrogance that thinks they and Britain are the same thing and interchangeable words, and then stare in comprehension when the rest of us show no interest in Britain.

    I’m off to watch Chris Hoy now, but I’ve no more interest in the English cyclists than the French or any other nation.

    Comment by Npd McNpd — 19 August 2008 @ 11.58 am | Reply

  5. Npd McNpd, Thanks for your comment. Congratulations, indeed, to Chris Hoy. I understand how it must irk you when the BBC refers to him as the first ‘Briton’ to have won three gold medals at a single Games since 1908, or whenever. Your comment is a classic case, it seems to me, of the complete incomprehension in Scotland that there are now a great many English people who are just as annoyed as Scots about this identification between England and Britain. Whereas, in the past, this was a case of what you describe (English people regarding Britain as if it was the same as England), I don’t think that is a correct description of what is in most English people’s minds when they hear ‘Great Britain”s successes being extolled; i.e. they don’t think this just means ‘England”s successes, a la the Ashes, the Rugby World Cup (great recent victory against the Aussies, by the way), etc. I think English people genuinely think Team GB refers to the whole of ‘Britain’, i.e. including Scottish and Welsh (and N. Irish?) sportsmen and -women alongside English.

    My issue with this is the way it is being, and will be, manipulated by unionist politicians that want to maintain the pretence that ‘Britain’ is a single unitary nation. Nowadays, this concept and political goal requires that England’s existence as a distinct nation is denied, and mention of the very word ‘England’ is suppressed, in Westminster politics and the national media. This is something which the Scots and Welsh rightly would never tolerate; and which only the traditional blurring of the boundaries between England and Britain, which you describe, allows the politicians to get away with in England.

    Comment by David — 20 August 2008 @ 6.06 am | Reply

  6. Npd McNpd,

    You are preaching to the converted here. The “English” that you refer to are the British nationalists infesting the British government and media who hold England and the English in contempt. For them blurring the lines of England and “Britain” serves their own ends and keeps the English firmly in their place. Fortunately, as a nation we are learning and learning fast.

    Comment by Little Englander — 20 August 2008 @ 11.45 am | Reply

  7. breaking up the union or team GB would be sad and pointless, surely? in both cases, divided we will be weaker, together we are inevitably stronger. the olympic people and the politicians know this and simply won’t allow a break-up to happen. considering yourself just scottish or english and not british is moronic. despite the fact all scots and english are legally british (UK) citizens, as an inhabitant of the island known as Great Britain, you could still be known, and know yourself, as a Brit, or a Briton, or British – even if the Union was dissolved. if your english, welsh, or scottish, your also british – FACT. you can’t really separate yourself from that secondary identity (i stress secondary, because theres absolutely no reason why you can’t be proudly scottish, english or welsh while remaining proudly British), it comes from living on an island that has always been different to the continent, meaning the Scots, Welsh and English actually have more similiarities than differences when compared to other nations in Europe. because we’re BRITISH, y’know? hostility to that idea is self-defeating, ignorant, and incredibly boring. it is what makes us strong. it should be accepted and celebrated, despite the inevitable rivalries, and part of that celebration is a) the Union and b) competing as team GB at the olympics.

    Comment by englishbrit — 21 August 2008 @ 11.35 am | Reply

  8. I’m a Scottish nationalist, but when it comes to the Olympics, I see athletes with whom I share a lot culturally, doing what they’ve trained to do. I wish them well, regardless of whether they’re Scottish, English, NI, or Welsh.

    Comment by commenter — 21 August 2008 @ 2.59 pm | Reply

  9. Englishbrit,

    Of course I and everyone else from the island of Great Britain have a common British identity, in fact I would go further and suggest that it is a common kinship shared with the Irish, Australians, New Zealanders, much of southern Africa and the majority of North America and the Carribean along with all the other parts of the world where our ancestors took our collective culture and for good or bad added it to varying degrees to the native culture. Those days are over though and what I and other like minded people, particulary in Scotland and Wales but increasingly in England too, is a British NATIONAL identity which oppresses our real national identities to the extent that we could quite legitimately claim to be the last colonies of the British empire. What exactly does being part of the state whos name nobody can agree on (is it Britain, Great Britain or The YoooKay?) do for England anyway? If being a world power or being third in the Olympic medal table floats your boat then so be it but for me being a succes or a faliure alongside the rest of my 50 million fellow countrymen and women under our own flag and national identity without clinging to the coat tails of someone elses success story, be they Chris Foy, Andy Murray or whoever, is far more important.

    Comment by Little Englander — 22 August 2008 @ 7.52 pm | Reply

  10. I see that the “Brown unionist agenda” has started early with a call today for a British(sic) football team to compete in the 2012 games.
    No pun intended but I hope it decisively gets kicked into touch from the football governing bodies, hopefully Scotland will lead the way, as I think the English FA will cave in, in the misguided notion that it will be “good for Britain” !

    Comment by Big Englander — 23 August 2008 @ 3.46 pm | Reply

  11. […] for alerting me to this piece of news go to a comment from ’Big Englander’ on my last post on ‘Team GB’ at the Beijing Olympics. GB – Gordon Brown, that is – has come out in […]

    Pingback by Football’s coming home - to Britain: GB backs Team UK for the 2012 Olympics « Britology Watch: Deconstructing ‘British Values’ — 23 August 2008 @ 7.38 pm | Reply

  12. If the backward-looking neaderthals of the SFA don’t co-operate with the BOA and the British government then Gordon Brown should get the EU to tell them to co-operate or else. They should be able to do this as the Lisbon Treaty gives the EU powers over sporting matters so the separate ‘teams’ may not exist for much longer anyway. Though I am not one to spout conspiracy theories were these new EU powers over sport the REAL reason why Gordon Brown pushed through the Lisbon Treaty without calling the promised referendum?

    Comment by Steven — 27 August 2008 @ 12.50 pm | Reply

  13. Can’t quite see where you’re coming from, Steven: are you opposed to the EU / Lisbon Treaty or in favour, and hence think it would be all right for the EU to boss our football associations around. Based on your logic, there should be a single EU Olympics team next time, which some have suggested, in fact.

    Comment by David — 27 August 2008 @ 1.47 pm | Reply

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