27 November, 2009
Exactly whose Team GB?
I don't really follow association football myself. It's an interesting enough game, but I am put off by the quasi-religious hysteria that surrounds it. If people absolutely insist on knowing what team I support, I will mention either Oldham or Charlton, these being the teams whose grounds, which I have never visited, are closest to where I respectively grew up and now live. Or I might explain that, despite being Mancunian by birth, I cannot support Man U because in my heart of hearts I still regard them as a Catholic team, and I am a Protestant, or at least a non-Catholic. (Such things mattered in the 1950s and 60s and are surprisingly hard to shake off.) Both responses are very effective at discouraging extended discussions of league positions, managers and players about which I know nothing and care less.
If the beautiful game happens to be on screen down the pub then I might watch part of a game while I'm there, but that's pretty well it. (Rugby is more my sort of game anyway. None of this fancy footwork, prancing round the field like ballerinas trying to nudge the ball away from your opponent; if the other bloke's got the ball, knock him over and fight him for it — that's the way to play football. Rugby is a remarkable game; essentially an 80-minute highly disciplined brawl.)
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. My own Damascene moment in the matter of who is and isn't British or English when it comes to representing the nation in sport came during the 2004 Athens Olympics, as I watched the final of the men's 4×100m sprint relay. Four young men clearly outshone their rivals at running round in circles and passing a stick to each other. Facetiousness apart, it was a sterling performance and I applauded them for it.
The four young men represented some outfit called "Team GB". Later on they were wheeled out before the cameras to mumble suitable platitudes to a BBC interviewer. As I watched, I looked at the four young men, all of whom turn out to be UK-born of African-Caribbean heritage (I looked them up later), and I looked at the blonde BBC tart interviewing them and it suddenly struck me. Team GB? They mean the UK. It quite genuinely had not registered with me before that moment. These guys are supposed to represent me. A wave of dissonance washed through me like a sudden and unexpected pulse of freezing rain. No, this isn't right. They are not of my tribe. Sport is tribal. Sport between nations is especially, quintessentially, tribal. Proficient and excellent as these four young men may have been, they did not represent me or my UK any more than Kevin Pietersen or Zola Budd do.
So yes I understand the Indie reporter's neighbour who rejects the French national football team as "too Black". I know the feeling.
The 4×100m relay represents an interesting case in another way. It is generally accepted, at least among the Unrighteous, that West Africans are on average genetically disposed to be the best sprinters, just as East Africans seem to be similarly disposed to succeed at distance running. To succeed in international sport some nations, particularly the oil-rich Arabs, have taken to importing suitable Africans and giving them citizenship. I'm not convinced that the distinction between that and someone of African heritage happening to be born and raised in the UK is
If, incidentally, any Righteous reader wants to start an argument about the identities of Kelly Holmes or Lewis Hamilton and so on, don't bother: you're missing the point. I'm not playing Aryan racial purity games with you, so you might as well keep that strawman in the cupboard. Save him for next year's bonfire night. The fact is that identity is a complex matter with fuzzy edges. Your solution to inconvenient complexity is to deny it, to redefine it out of existence so that the world fits your nice fluffy model. Mine is to face up to real issues while accepting that there are no simple answers.
That ain't far off that. Good bit of phrasing.