Overachieving at last

The British have been surprised by a series of sporting successes. Harley Filben considers sport’s relationship to nationalism

There is something wrong with the British summer this year.

For a start, the sun is actually shining for more than three hours at a time. And it is shining, for once, on our fair nation’s sporting fortune. The latest triumph is Chris Froome’s victory in the Tour de France (following Bradley Wiggins in 2012). Just two weeks before that there was Andy Murray. The Scottish tennis prodigy became the first Briton to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon after an increasingly farcical 77-year drought, clobbering Novak Djokovic in straight sets. The Welsh-heavy British and Irish Lions team had already sealed their victory over Australia by way of a crushing third-test performance.

Australians barely had time to catch their breath before the start of the Ashes and, while they ran England perilously close in the first test at Trent Bridge, the Australian cricketers suffered an even worse humiliation at Lords than their rugby-playing compatriots did in Sydney. Two matches in, the series is all but wrapped up in England’s favour, and the pre-series whispers of a 5-0 whitewash have become cacophonous.

What the hell is going on? There may be something of an optical illusion at work - Murray, it is true, is an exceptionally talented tennis player, but it is hard to escape the fact that the Australian teams are at something of a low ebb. Their cricketers, in particular, appear to be in the throes of dressing-room recriminations, and have made a basically adequate England side look superhuman by comparison with their ineptitude. It is also, of course, an even-numbered year, so the home nations’ dire football sides will not spoil the party.

Other views are available. Mark Perryman, the former Eurocommunist hatchet man, contributes a piece on Murray’s victory to the Morning Star (July 11), and it is every bit as good as the tense reunification of two wings of ‘official communist’ degeneration would lead you to expect. Perryman, as the head honcho of the once-modish Philosophy Football brand, may know a thing or two about football. What is clear from his piece in the Star is that he knows nothing at all about anything else.

“The Lions’ triumph doesn’t fit into a previously cosy version of sports nationalism. Those selected were elite rugby players, of course, but entirely unused to playing together as a team until they go on tour,” he sagely informs us - and at one stroke, British nationalism, inclusive of the Irish ascendancy that historically dominated Irish rugby in its early days, disappears. How convenient! “This moves us away from a traditional - or certainly English-focused - version of Britishness” - as if the Lions tours were some sort of novelty of 2013 ...

As far as the tennis goes, there are more clangers to come. Noting that both Alex Salmond and David Cameron were fighting over reflected glory from Murray’s tour de force, Perryman claims that “nobody was very much interested in what either had to say. Tennis, like most individual sports, doesn’t really do nationalism in the way team sports do. The story becomes a personal one - of family, sacrifice, talent spotted and developed, disappointments turned into a glorious sunny July afternoon of triumph.” Funny, then, that the media, and the British tennis-loving population in general, failed to celebrate Roger Federer’s equally impressive performance to defeat Murray in four sets last year.

After a few token twitches against racism and sexism, which are so facile as to be beneath examination, Perryman looks forward to “a more multi-sports summer, enabling a much greater variety of ways to identify with what sport and nation means to us”. This betrays, alas, a very (white) English-focused view of sport - as if a summer rugby tour was ever going to escape notice in the sport’s working class south Wales heartlands, as if the substantial south Asian population in Britain fails to notice when there’s cricket on … Perryman, on the whole, writes as if he has only just discovered sports other than football, and presumes to speak for all Britain in his ignorance.

Beyond such details, there is a bigger picture he equally misses. The place of sport in the national psyche - the English national psyche in particular - is an odd one. There is no escaping the nationalist aspect of sport culture; a big event, especially in football, is a chance to fly the flag, and flying the flag is reciprocally a means of participation in the sport. Even the grammar of bar-room chatter - ‘We really showed those Aussies,’ say England supporters who would not know which end of a cricket bat to hold - testifies to the ritualised participation in a small national story.

This leads some to fear sport is inherently contaminated by bilious national chauvinism, but this is wrong-headed. There were no murderous brawls between the British and Australian expats when the Lions series was on; an England-India test match does not generally lead to racist violence in east London. Even football casuals on a foreign rampage are more interested in having a fight than flying the flag (an interest local firms are often more than willing to indulge).

The nationalism of sport is less xenophobic than theatrical; it unites fascists like the English Defence League with Guardian journalists and (truth be told) most on the far left too. Even those who support ‘anyone but England’ are, by virtue of their naive inversion, part of the ritual. It is hardly the strongest tie to the nation, but it provides a peculiarly participatory means of engaging in a national ritual.

It will suffice to compare it with the recent birth of a royal heir - while, no doubt, many are following the oppressively unblinking news coverage of the Windsor scion, and even thronging together in public places in celebration, the event remains something that is fed to a basically passive audience. Nobody says that ‘we’ produced a jolly nice baby, referring to the young prince. Nobody deconstructs tactical blunders on the part of the maternity nurses over a few pints. There is nothing to do but observe that a woman has successfully given birth to a child, maybe raise a glass and move on.

Sport afflicts the English in a particular way, not least because a good deal of world sport has its origins in the English public school system. Football, the most universally played and understood sport in the world; rugby and cricket, more limited to British ex-colonies, but still (especially in the case of cricket) mass cultural phenomena - all are products of the English upper classes. The modern Olympic Games were invented by a Frenchman, but explicitly modelled on the gentleman-amateur ethos of the English public school.

The social role of these sports has changed, from being principally a means of socialising the ruling establishment to mass culture; and so, obviously, has Britain’s place in the world. The interminable rubbishness of British sporting endeavour hooks in neatly to the collapse of British world hegemony. It is often joked that the empire was an extremely bloody way to teach the oppressed peoples of the world how to beat us at cricket; that the relative competence of the English cricket team in the last decade feels somehow wrong, or at least exceptional, representing a mismatch with the national narrative.

Scratch the surface, however, and the reasons for success are rather more mundane. The solid British showing at last year’s Olympics, for a start, is straightforwardly a function of London 2012’s bottomless budget. Countless millions were thrown at elite sport to ensure a respectable showing, at least, although nobody seriously entertained competing with America and China, for whom success in such matters is pretty much a matter of high-level foreign policy.

Much was made of Mo Farah, the Somali-born long-distance runner and putative face of modern multicultural Britain; but most medal winners were public school-educated, and thus had access to better sport facilities and at an earlier stage. The cricket team’s turnaround, meanwhile, coincided with a load more money being thrown into the national side by the England and Wales Cricket Board. The English football team remains dire because the Football Association cannot possibly compete in terms of financial incentives for players and managers with the billionaires to whom they have whored out the top tiers of the game.

At the base, atrophy is everywhere. Despite its fierce following, the Welsh rugby grassroots are dried out - facilities are closing, and village teams are shutting up shop. More generally, playing fields and sports grounds up and down the country are being sold off to predatory developers, in the service of a zombified property boom and supermarket chains.

I said that sport spectatorship is participatory, but that is a half-truth. It is more participatory, obviously, to play sport yourself. Frankly, it makes you a better spectator, if nothing else. Decaying capitalism offers us a world in which, along with all its other horrors, talking about elite sport is the closest we will come to being a part of it.