You may have noticed a sporting event going on in London this summer — joyous, celebratory and proudly patriotic without ever veering into jingoism, the 2012 London Olympics was an event which Londoners and Britons are justifiably proud of. The greatest summer games ever according to many.
But, can anyone outside this sceptred isle correctly state the home team’s name?
At the opening ceremony, the official sign carried in front of the home team as they marched into the stadium read “Great Britain”. The team’s official website referred to them as “Team GB”, a shortened name frequently adopted by the BBC’s commentators during the Olympics.
Both those names are inaccurate.
The fact that they are says much about the important, but subtle to the point of being inexplicable, concepts of nationhood and nationality in the British Isles.
Before I have a go at explaining them through the prism of sport, it will be necessary to provide a brief primer on the concepts.
At present, in public international law, the full name of the country which hosted the 2012 London Olympics is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the “UK”). Great Britain consists of England, Wales and Scotland. Collectively, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are referred to as the four “home nations” and people from the UK are referred to as British. The UK does not include the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, although Channel Islanders and Manx carry British passports and compete for Team GB at the Olympics.
It is the UK — not England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland individually — which signs international treaties. It is the UK which is a member state of the UN. It is the UK which occupies a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It is the UK which has the power to declare war on other countries. It is the UK which controls its own borders and decides whether it will issue visas to foreign nationals.
“But,” I hear you say, “don’t England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland play international football as separate and independent nations?”
Yup, they do.
Broadly, in the major international team sports, the four home nations exist and compete as separate entities, whereas, in most individual sports, participants from the UK compete under the British flag. However, this is a generalisation which is itself subject to exceptions at every turn.
The Olympics fall under the general heading of individual sports and the relevant governing body is the British Olympic Association (“BOA”) which is the National Olympic Committee (“NOC”) for the UK.
So, the Olympic team names “Great Britain” and “Team GB” are obviously inaccurate — they exclude Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.
However, Northern Irish-born athletes are given the choice to represent Ireland or Team GB at the Olympics. In London, of the five Northern Irish athletes who won medals, three represented Team GB and two represented Ireland.
Northern Ireland, understandably, asked the BOA to change the team name to “Team UK”. Their request was denied. According to the BBC, the BOA stated two main reasons for denying the request.
Firstly, the BOA argued that “[s]ponsors understandably feel that there is more intrinsic value in sponsoring the team and not the BOA and the Team GB mark is now an item of intellectual property which has developed over three Olympic cycles”. This makes sense, particularly when one considers that the BOA receives no government funding and as such relies exclusively on the funds which it is able to raise itself privately, commercially and from members of the public.
Secondly, the BOA argued that neither “Team GB” nor “Team UK” are strictly accurate since the team includes members from places that are geographically part of neither Great Britain nor the UK — for example, the Isle of Man, Jersey and some UK overseas territories. As a statement of fact, this argument is true, but as an argument it is invalid. The argument implicitly accepts that technical inaccuracy in the team name is undesirable. That being the case, logically, a lower degree of inaccuracy is preferable to a higher degree of inaccuracy. Yet, the argument then goes on to conclude that a name with a greater degree of inaccuracy — “Team GB” excludes Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man — is preferable to a name with a substantially lower degree of inaccuracy: “Team UK” would still exclude the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, but at least it’d include Northern Ireland.
The Channel Islands’ and the Isle of Man’s legal relationship with the UK is a bit like Puerto Rico’s with the United States. Except that the Channel Islands don’t have their own independent football team who beat England at major tournaments — you know, the way Puerto Rico beat a Team USA basketball team containing Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan by 19 points at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Interestingly, although the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are sparsely populated (their approximate combined population is 240,000), they provided Team GB with one of its biggest names — the sprint cyclist Mark Cavendish, born and raised on the Isle of Man. Cavendish may not be that well-known in North America, but in Britain and Europe, he is a bona fide superstar — the man dubbed the Manx Missile is the reigning BBC Sports Personality of the Year and road World Champion; in 2011 he became the first Briton to win the green jersey awarded to the Tour de France’s best sprinter; and in 2012 he was hailed by no less an authority than L’Equipe as the Tour de France’s greatest ever sprinter.
Cavendish came into the London 2012 Olympics with an air of thwarted destiny, having famously left Beijing as the only member of the all-conquering British Olympic track cycling team without a medal. In Beijing, Cavendish and his partner Bradley Wiggins were the gold medal favourites in the two-man Madison event. But, Wiggins, exhausted from winning gold in the 4,000m individual pursuit and the team pursuit, ran out of puff in the Madison. Cavendish was understandably displeased. The pair did not speak for more than two months, until Wiggins texted Cavendish to ask, “Hi, do you remember me?” to which Cavendish replied, “Ha, ha, of course I do.”
In the four years between Beijing and London, both Wiggins and Cavendish continued their respective ascents into the European sporting stratosphere. Cavendish established himself as one of the world’s greatest sprinters, whilst Wiggins established himself as a genuine contender to become the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. In a final twist to the tale, when, less than a week before the London 2012 opening ceremony, Wiggins wrote himself into the annals of British sporting history by winning the Tour de France, it was Cavendish who played a key supporting role as a domestique, literally fetching and carrying the drinks from the team car for his teammates. Cavendish dutifully performed his job as the most over-qualified donkey in world sport, and in so doing, helped Wiggins become a legend. The Telegraph’s Ian Chadband observed: “It felt about as incongruous as watching Cristiano Ronaldo doing a holding midfielder’s job.” Cavendish described the domestique work he did on this year’s Tour de France as akin to “putting Wayne Rooney in defence”.
However, Cavendish’s noble self-sacrifice would be repaid in full — his Tour de France teammates Wiggins and Chris Froome (the runner-up in this year’s Tour de France) would, along with David Millar (a multiple Tour de France stage winner and a former British national road race champion) and Ian Stannard (the reigning British national road race champion), put themselves at Cavendish’s service in the Olympic road race, doing the hard graft to get the Manx Missile within striking distance of the leading pack at the finish, where he could unleash his devastating speed to win the gold medal. Scheduled for the day after the opening ceremony, the men’s road race would get Team GB’s home Olympics off to the perfect start, provide a deserving coronation for King Cav on the Mall, and erase, once and for all, the hurt of Beijing for Cavendish.
That was the plan at any rate.
It didn’t work out.
As it happened, every other nation was wise to the simple but effective plan which the Brits had executed to perfection at the road race world championships in Copenhagen last year. Accordingly, the other countries declined to help the Brits with the hard graft in the peloton. Moreover, unlike Copenhagen, the London Olympic course featured a number of hilly climbs and each team was only allowed five riders (instead of the eight allowed in the world championships), so, in the absence of any help from the other nations, not even the four-man supporting cast Cavendish himself described as “a dream team” could get him within striking distance of the leading pack at the finish line on their own.
The most prominent example of the four home nations competing as separate and independent entities in international team sport is football — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own national teams, national anthems and national governing bodies (known as “football associations”).
Indeed, England versus Scotland is the oldest international rivalry in football. The two nations played the very first official international football match on 30 November 1872 at the West of Scotland cricket club’s ground at Hamilton Crescent in Partick.
Little wonder then, that the home nations’ football associations (“FAs”) tend to guard their independence with a certain patriotic zeal. This created a dilemma for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics. Since 1972, Great Britain has not even attempted to qualify for the Olympic football tournament — the last time a Great Britain football team competed at an Olympics was 1960 — because Great Britain does not exist as an entity in international football.
Even on the three occasions when one of the home nations’ performance in the UEFA U-21 championships — Scotland in 1992 and 1996, and England in 2008 — was sufficient to qualify for the Olympic football tournament, Great Britain opted not to send a team.
However, given that the 2012 Olympics were being held at home in London, there was a push to field a home team bringing together the best under-23 players from the four home nations, in order to satisfy the Olympic host nation’s requirement to compete in every discipline. FIFA President Sepp Blatter gave assurances that the fielding of a unified Team GB Olympic football team would not threaten the footballing sovereignty of the four separate home nations. Nevertheless, all the home nations’ FAs, except for England’s, remained implacably opposed to the very notion.
As it turned out, some of their players did not feel the same way — five Welsh footballers played for Team GB at the London Olympics.
However, their representation of a nation distinct from that which they and their ancestors have proudly represented for over a century, caused confusion for both the players and the home crowds.
At Team GB’s opening Olympic football game against Senegal at Old Trafford, a close to capacity crowd of 72,176 had to work out what to sing and chant. After all, the songs and chants normally used to support England may have discomforted or worse, offended the Welsh footballers representing Team GB. Eventually, the crowd plumped for an unfamiliar-sounding chant of “GB” augmented by some hand-clapping.
The situation was no less confusing for the Welsh players who, before kick-off, opted not to sing God Save the Queen, the national anthem of the UK and England. Although Wales is a part of the UK, Wales has its own spine-tingling national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, which is traditionally sung before international football and rugby matches when Wales is playing as a separate and independent nation. Growing up, the Welsh footballers representing Team GB would have seen and heard God Save the Queen as the national anthem of a rival international team — England. So it must have been weird for them to suddenly be asked to sing it before an international football match. Robbie Savage — as proud a Welshman as you’ll find and capped 39 times for Wales in international football — was working as a studio pundit on the BBC’s telecast of the match and opined that the Welsh footballers should have sung God Save the Queen because they were representing Britain.
Although the Team GB Olympic football team failed to win a medal, they gave English and Welsh football fans and players, a tantalising glimpse of something previously buried in the darkest recesses of their mind, a treasonous thought which they would not have admitted to harbouring under pain of death — the potential for greater international success offered by a combined England and Wales football team.
Wales (current population: 3.1 million) has always been too small to consistently produce whole international football teams capable of qualifying for major tournaments.
In its entire history, Wales has qualified for just one World Cup.
However, despite football ranking a distant second behind rugby in the winter sports hierarchy, Wales has, in almost every generation, produced a handful of truly world-class footballers who have won just about everything there is to win at club level with their English and European employers — John Charles in the black and white of Juventus in ’50s and early ’60s, John Toshack in the red of Liverpool in the ’70s, Ian Rush in the red of Liverpool in the ’80s, and Ryan Giggs in the red of Manchester United throughout the ’90s, noughties and whatever we’re calling this decade. Today, the likes of Aaron Ramsey at Arsenal, Gareth Bale at Tottenham and Joe Allen at Liverpool are poised to continue that tradition.
The problem for Wales as an international football side has been that, in every generation, those two or three world-class players are surrounded by honest, hard-working yeoman from the lower leagues.
England has the equal and opposite problem to Wales — with a population of 53 million, England has always had a sufficiently large player pool to produce solid international football sides composed of players from the top-tiers of Europe’s best football leagues, capable of consistently qualifying for major tournaments and getting past the group phase. But, England has been unable to consistently make the semi-finals and finals of major tournaments. They have only won one major international tournament — the 1966 World Cup.
One theory for England’s inability to consistently contend to win major tournaments is the absence of one or two truly world-class players who make the difference at the top level. This theory is supported by the historical fact that English clubs have consistently contended for the European Cup and those who have done so have typically had the requisite handful of world-class players, but they have often been of a non-English, British nationality — George Best (Northern Irish), Denis Law (Scottish) and Ryan Giggs (Welsh) at Manchester United; John Toshack (Welsh), Ian Rush (Welsh) and Kenny Dalglish (Scottish) at Liverpool; John Robertson (Scottish and pudgy-looking but brilliant at football), Martin O’Neill (Northern Irish) and John McGovern (Scottish) at Nottingham Forest.
To add an extra layer to an already enticing Indonesian layer cake of irony, the handful of world-class footballers produced by Wales in every generation have often occupied the very positions in which their contemporary England sides have been deficient — in the 90s and 2000s, it was Ryan Giggs on the left-wing, nowadays, one could point to Gareth Bale on the left as well as Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen as tidy, efficient ball-retaining distributors in central midfield.
A combined England and Wales football team would appear to offer a cure for both nations’ respective perennial ills — England would get a sprinkling of Welsh stardust and Wales would get a solid squad to sprinkle their stardust onto.
But, it will never happen. In football, the separate identities of the four home nations are too well-entrenched to ever admit the possibility of a permanent union between any two or more of them.
By contrast, in cricket, England and Wales have always combined to form one international side, although the team’s name in all the official records is “England”, the team is always referred to as “England” (never “England and Wales”), the team’s coat of arms is the three lions and the commonly used acronym for the governing body is the “ECB”, despite the ECB’s full name being the England and Wales Cricket Board.
Scotland is an entirely different matter. In cricket, Scotland fields its own separate and independent international team and for the purposes of International Cricket Council (“ICC”) and ECB rules and regulations, Scotland is regarded as a country separate from and independent of England, and Scottish cricketers are, with the obvious exception of their automatic satisfaction of the disjunctive threshold requirement for a British passport, treated as foreigners in terms of their eligibility to play cricket for England.
In cricket, Ireland, like Scotland, fields its own separate and independent international team. Because the relevant ECB regulation governing qualification to play cricket for England treats an Irish passport as equivalent to a British passport (despite Ireland not being part of the UK, having gained independence on 6 December 1921), broadly, in terms of legal eligibility to play cricket for “England”, Irish cricketers are treated the same as Scottish cricketers — even though Scotland is part of the UK, whereas Ireland most definitely is not — and both Irish and Scottish cricketers are treated less favourably than Welsh cricketers who are treated exactly the same as English cricketers.
The “Ireland” cricket team unites Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and Ireland (which is most emphatically not part of the UK). This unified status could not be more different from football, where the continued existence of separate Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland national teams remains an unfortunate lightning rod for sectarian tensions. Some still see the Northern Ireland football team as representing Protestants in Northern Ireland and continued political and economic union with the UK.
In 2000, a Northern Irish Catholic midfielder named Neil Lennon moved from Leicester City to Celtic Football Club. By that stage, Lennon had, as he later told The Guardian, already “represented my country [Northern Ireland] 36 or 37 times and … enjoyed the full support of our fans.” That all changed after he joined Celtic, the club seen to represent Irish Catholics. Lennon explained: “Now I was aware of being jeered by our own supporters every time I touched the ball.” In 2002, when he was due to captain Northern Ireland for the first time, a death threat was made. Lennon quit international football.
Yet, in international cricket and rugby union, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are able to unite to form a national team called “Ireland”, without any such sectarian problems. And cricket and rugby union — two sports played predominantly in the former colonies and dominions of the British Empire — arguably have a much more pronounced British imperial hue than football, the game played in every corner of the globe.
In international rugby union, there are normally four separate national teams in the British Isles — England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland (which combines Northern Ireland and Ireland). However, every four years, a special team, bringing together the very best players from those four otherwise separate rugby nations, is selected to tour one of the three southern hemisphere powerhouses of international rugby, South Africa, New Zealand or Australia.
This team’s full name is the British and Irish Lions. They have a rich and proud history which stretches back to 1888 and they are an enormously successful commercial brand. They are sometimes called “the Lions” for short, although they are also frequently (and erroneously) referred to by fans and the media as the “British Lions”.
Despite these quasi-Freudian slips, many Irish players have proudly and successfully played for the British and Irish Lions — indeed, several of the Lions’ recent superstars such as Brian O’Driscoll, Keith Wood and Ronan O’Gara have been Irish — and Irish rugby fans have travelled abroad in large numbers to support the Lions, although, unlike their English, Welsh and Scottish counterparts, a small number of them choose not to wear the red Lions jersey, instead donning the emerald green of Ireland.
Red, of course, was the colour worn by the soldiers of the British Empire, the very political entity that what is now Ireland fought in a bloody war of independence which ended with Ireland gaining independence from the UK by treaty on 6 December 1921. During the Second World War, Ireland stayed officially neutral, even going so far as to refer to the war as “the Emergency”. To this day, Ireland is neither a member of the Commonwealth nor NATO.
In light of the difficult historical relationship between Britain and Ireland, one might think that the continued inclusion of players born and bred in Ireland in the Lions team might cause something of a ruckus with fans, players, administrators and/or the media somewhere in the British Isles.
It’s not an issue.
Chalk this down as one of the many impenetrable mysteries of national identity in the British Isles.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Ireland is an independent country which is entirely separate from the UK and that, in turn, poses the dilemma of what national anthem the British and Irish Lions should sing before games.
The solution is both elegant and apolitical — no national anthem is played for the Lions, instead they stand in a line with each player placing his arms over the shoulders of his teammates next to him in a silent display of unity.
Thus, the Lions — who represent a collection of nations who are not unified in a single political entity — have simply gone one step further than Spain — a nominally politically unified nation that is comprised of a disparate collection of different cultures and ethnicities, some with their own languages — which opts for a national anthem without lyrics.
In individual sports, such as tennis, cycling and formula 1, British participants compete under the British flag and, insofar as a national team for international competition is called for, the relevant team is called Great Britain.
So, when Andy Murray, a Scot, plays tennis at grand slams, his country is listed as Great Britain, and when he plays Davis Cup, the national team he represents is Great Britain. Early in his career, Murray was asked who he’d be supporting at the 2006 football World Cup (Scotland failed to qualify) and he flippantly replied: “Whoever England are playing, ha, ha.” His tongue-in-cheek remark didn’t go down too well in Middle England.
Murray learnt his lesson from that early storm. Since then, he’s taken to draping himself in the Union Jack at every available opportunity, especially at Wimbledon time.
Team GB’s flag bearer at the London opening ceremony was a Scotsman born and raised in Edinburgh, Sir Chris Hoy, a then four-time Olympic gold medallist track sprint cyclist and already an officially minted British hero. By the conclusion of the London 2012 Olympics, Sir Chris was a six-time Olympic gold medallist and Team GB’s most successful Olympian of all-time.
Oddly enough, when both Murray and Sir Chris won gold in glorious fashion in London, the final verse of the UK’s national anthem, God Save the Queen, was not sung at their medal ceremonies:
Lord grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God save the King
Ironically, the lyrics to Rule Britannia, the unofficial anthem of the British Empire, were written by a Scot, James Thomson.
Fortunately, the Stella McCartney designed Team GB tracksuits were, whether intentionally or not, a tad more friendly towards Scottish national sensitivities, embodying a sleek “Blue Steel” look which featured the Union Jack, but sans the colour red from the St George’s Cross (the national flag of England). Indeed, if Alex Salmond, the leader of the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party, tilted his head left slightly, he could’ve blissfully imagined that he was looking at a pair of Scottish Saltires superimposed on top of one another, rather than the Union Jack.
If all of the above sounds peculiar, anachronistic and downright inconsistent, well, that’s because it is.
And, yes, the next time someone raves to you about London 2012, you can inform them that the home team’s name was technically wrong.
But, when it comes to the mysteries of nationality and nationhood in the British Isles, tread carefully and when — not if — you eventually make an erroneous statement on the subject, you can at least console yourself with the knowledge that even some of history’s greatest Britons got it wrong occasionally.
The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, first released in 1967, refers to “the English army”, which had not existed as a separate and independent entity since 1536.
Before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, famously signalled the British fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty” — even though the Acts of Union forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain were passed in 1707 and the British warships were flying the Union Jack!
To recap: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all play international football as separate and independent nations. And each of those five nations zealously protects its independence.
But, in international cricket, the English and Welsh happily play together as “England”, the Scots play by themselves and the Northern Irish and Irish play together as “Ireland”.
As far as international rugby’s concerned, the Welsh would sooner elect a sheep to parliament than unite with the English in one national team, and, most of the time, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (which combines Ireland and Northern Ireland) play as four separate nations; however, every four years they happily unite to form the British and Irish Lions and go off and attempt to conquer one of the southern hemisphere colonies, wearing the red of the British Empire.
When it comes to individual sports, such as the Olympics, the English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and even Channel Islanders, generally compete under one and the same flag — that of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
All of them — English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and miscellaneous Channel Islanders — will happily and bravely fight alongside one another, under the same flag, for the same regent, in times of war: from the beaches of Normandy to the jungles of Malaya to the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan today.
Just, um, don’t ask them to play international football together.