Sports and Nationalism

The existence of a close relationship between sports and nationalism is widely accepted. This relationship manifests itself in the concept of national sports, in the enduring popularity of international competitions, events, and contests, and in the myriad ways in which politicians and politically motivated groups have sought to harness sport to national causes. On the other hand, questions are increasingly being asked not only about the future of the relationship between nationalism and sport, but also about the fate of the nation itself. The argument is perfectly straightforward, even though it is commonly expressed in far from accessible language. Put simply, it is asserted that economic, political, cultural, and ideological trends, supported by a pervasive and all powerful global media industry, must inevitably destroy the distinctiveness upon which nations, nationalism, and national identities depend for their very existence.

Specifically in relation to sport, it is claimed that the global exchange of sporting bodies makes it increasingly difficult for the nation state to be represented by conventional corporeal symbols. As a consequence of this and other far reaching developments, it is believed by some that we may be at the earliest stages of the development of a transnational or global culture, of which sport is a part. Yet, sport also provides considerable evidence of cultural exchange that is undoubtedly at odds with the vision of a process of homogenization that is often encapsulated in the concept of Americanization. Furthermore, in any debate of this type it is dangerously misleading to equate the nation with the nation state. Indeed, it can be claimed that the forces associated with the idea of globalization have actually created political and cultural space in which nations and nationalities that have historically been submerged within nation states have been reawakened and infused with new vitality.

One need go no further than the United Kingdom in order to clarify the distinction between nation and nation state. ‘‘Britain’’ is in itself a nationless entity. Nowhere is this demonstrated more publicly than in the world of international sport. With a single Olympics squad, four ‘‘national’’ soccer teams and three ‘‘national’’ rugby teams together with Northern Ireland’s part share in the Irish team, the UK’s sporting landscape is testimony to the complex relationship between nations and nation states. Thus, when we refer to the prestige that nations can derive from sport, it is important to think in terms not only of internationally recognized states whose politicians seize upon sporting success for ideological and propagandist reasons, but also of submerged nations (Scotland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque nation, Catalonia, and so on) for which sport has commonly been one of the most effective vehicles for cultural resistance by both cultural and political nationalists. For them, sport provides athletes and fans with opportunities to celebrate a national identity that is different from, and in some cases opposed to, their ascribed nationality. The two forms of engagement need not be mutually exclusive. It is possible to support both British teams and Scottish ones or to represent Wales and also the United Kingdom. It can be argued, though, that national identity takes priority in the minds of sports fans. Nationality, however, is likely to be what matters to athletes since this alone guarantees the right to compete on behalf of nation states, which, unlike many nations, may be represented in international sport just as they are at the United Nations itself. It is worth noting, of course, that nationality rules have become increasingly flexible in sport as a response to labor migration.

The desire, particularly on the part of fans, to express their national identity in the realm of sport is clearly linked to nationalism in the broadest sense or, at the very least, to patriotism. Former Member of Parliament Jim Sillars dismissed the attitude of his fellow Scots toward national sporting representatives as ‘‘ninety minute patriotism.’’ For example, Irish support for national representatives in global sporting activities such as track and field, rugby union, and soccer is in most cases patriotic and, by implication, relatively politically shallow. The relationship between Gaelic games and Irish nationalism is, on the other hand, much more profound. In general, however, attempts to distinguish the passions aroused by international sport from ‘‘real’’ nationalism miss the point. It is undeniable that expressions of solidarity for players and teams that represent one’s nation are closely linked to cultural nationalism. Whether or not they are also bound up with political nationalism is a different question, the answer to which necessarily varies from one individual to the next. For many people, even ones whose national identity is associated with a submerged nation, cultural nationalism is enough. They may well feel that they could not become any more Scottish or Welsh or Catalan than they already are with the formation of a nation state that would correspond to their sense of national identity. For others, though, cultural nationalism is nothing more than the emotional embellishment of a strongly held political ideology that will settle for nothing less than national sovereignty.

For most sportsmen and women, even in an era when money is a major incentive for sporting success, representing the nation remains important. It is not inconceivable that they might represent more than one nation, with neither ethnic origin nor even well established civic connections being necessary for a move from one to another. However, for the overwhelming majority of athletes engaged in international sport, the matter is still relatively clear cut. For fans, things are arguably even simpler. In the modern era, following one’s ‘‘proxy warriors’’ into international competition is one of the easiest and most passionate ways of underlining one’s sense of national identity, one’s nationality, or both. Needless to say, not everyone wishes to celebrate their national affiliation in this way, in most instances for the simple reason that they are not interested in sport, the nation, or the relationship between the two. But just as for most active participants, for the majority of sports fans the choice is relatively straightforward. This is not to deny that in certain circumstances athletes and fans alike may well understand their nations in different ways. Furthermore, it is not only sporting individuals who demonstrate the contested character of most, if not all, nations. Sports themselves also do so to the extent that they become ‘‘national’’ in the popular imagination for a variety of reasons.

National sports take different forms and, in so doing, they provide us with insights into the character of particular nations. Indeed, the concept of the ‘‘national’’ sport not only provides insights into the relationship between the various terms listed above that are associated with the nation, but also helps us to understand how it is that nations resist globalization even in a global era. Some ‘‘national’’ sports are peculiar to specific nations. Their ‘‘national’’ status is ring fenced by their exclusivity – echoes here of ethnic nationalism. National sports and games of this type are in some sense linked to the essence of the nations in question, even though their actual origins may be prenational or at least prior to the emergence of nation states. They represent ‘‘the nation’’ symbolically despite the fact that they may well have demonstrably failed to capture the interest of most of the people who constitute the civic nation and/or the nation state.

It should be noted that those activities that are most likely to be ring fenced because of their specific cultural resonance do not always find favor with members of particular nations’ cosmopolitan elites, who may well believe that the nation is better represented by sports that are both modern and transnational. Certainly, the corrida de toros, the classic form of the bullfight, is not universally popular throughout Spain, nor does it even take place at all in some Spanish regions. In terms of popularity, the ‘‘national sport’’ of Spain is almost unarguably association football (soccer). Yet, at least as much as taurine activities, the game helps us to appreciate the extent to which Spain is at best a divided nation and, at worst, not a nation at all – merely a nation state.

In Ireland, whilst hurling may well be the sport of choice in the eyes of Bord Failte or the executives responsible for selling a variety of Irish products, including stout and whiskey, the sport’s popularity varies considerably from one county, and even one parish, to another. Gaelic football is more uniform in terms of the support that it receives throughout the 32 counties. Yet there are isolated pockets where it loses out to hurling. Furthermore, the right of any Gaelic game to be assigned ‘‘national status’’ is considerably weakened not only because some Irish nationalists opt for other sports, such as rugby union and soccer, but also because the overwhelming majority of the Protestant community in the north of Ireland have resolutely turned their backs on the whole Gaelic games tradition. It might seem easy to dismiss this difficulty by simply taking these people at their word and accepting that, since they do not consider themselves to be truly Irish, their sporting preferences need have no impact on what does or does not constitute an Irish national sport. But this would be to ignore the basic precepts of Irish republican ideology that has consistently sought to embrace not only Catholics but Protestants and dissenters as well.

Games such as rugby union and soccer have some claim on the right to be called ‘‘national’’ in the Irish context. Despite their British origins, they are played throughout the island. Moreover, although rugby tends to be played by Protestants rather than Catholics in Northern Ireland, both football codes enjoy considerable supports from both traditions on the island as a whole. They offer Irish sportsmen the opportunity to represent the nation at the international level. Indeed, rugby, unlike soccer, allows northern unionists the chance to acknowledge their sporting Irishness whilst retaining a political allegiance to the union of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. It should be noted, however, that regardless of any claims that either sport may have to be recognized as ‘‘national,’’ neither has escaped the influence of globalization. The two Irish ‘‘national’’ soccer teams have both fielded players whose ethnic ‘‘right’’ to belong has been relatively weak. The same thing has happened in rugby union, which in recent years has witnessed a flood of antipodean coaches and players, some of whom have qualified to play for Ireland despite having accents that conjure up images of Dunedin or Durban, not Dublin or Dungannon.

Gaelic games have been less affected by the movement of people that is commonly linked to globalization, except in the sense that Irish migrants have taken their traditional activities to other parts of the world, most notably North America. This is not to deny that changes taking place beyond the shores of Ireland have had an impact on the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Nevertheless, the factors that have been most influential are best understood in terms of modernization and capitalism as opposed to the more specific category of globalization. Gaelic games have been relatively unscathed by the latter. As a result, the GAA offers rich insights into the processes whereby the nation has been able to resist the global in sport as in much else.

There are some grounds for believing that the link between nationalism and sport is becoming weaker and that the very existence of international competition is threatened by the twin forces of globalization and consumer capitalism. For the time being, however, the relationship between sports and nations remains strong, although this relationship manifests itself in many ways.


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