Keeping the Flags Flying


With England out of Euro 2012 on penalties the flag-waving build up for the Olympics begins in earnest. MARK PERRYMAN describes the varying sporting nationalisms and internationalism framed by football and athletics. Mark is a prominent media spokesperson for the ‘progressive patriotism’ position, one which the author of this blog is happy to debate yet explicitly rejects

David Hemery burning his way round the track to victory in the 400m hurdles, Mexico 1968. Mary Peters defying gravity as she hauled her frame over the high jump bar to lift pentathlon Gold in Munich 1972.  David Wilkie winning in the pool, Montreal 1976. Coe and Ovett enjoying 1500m and 800m glory, Moscow 1980. Decathlete Daley Thompson acting the golden cheeky chappy, Los Angeles 1984. Great Britain beating Germany in the men’s hockey final, Seoul 1988. Christie and Gunnell triumphant on the track at Barcelona 1992. Steve Redgrave promising he’d never be seen near a boat again after winning his fourth straight Gold with Matthew Pinsent at Atlanta 1996, before doing precisely that to win his fifth and final Gold, once more with Pinsent, at Sydney 2000. Kelly Holmes grabbing an eye-popping 800m and 1500m golden double against all the odds in 2004. Hoy, Pendleton, Adlington and Ohuruogu leading Team GB’s Gold medal charge to fourth in the Beijing 2008 Medals Table.

From a late sixties childhood to twenty-first century fiftysomething I can measure my life out in the glow of the quadrennial summer Olympics.  Each and every Games remembered for the achievements of others, as well as our own. 1968 for the long jump leap beyond the limits of human capacity by Bob Beamon. 1972, the impish Olga Korbut tilting her head at the close of her floor routine in the gymnastics hall. Cuban Teofilo Stevenson supreme in the Olympic boxing ring, winning three consecutive golds, 1972, 1976 and 1980. An amateur heavyweight boxer who never turned professional despite the millions of dollars offered to him by US promoters. And so it goes on.

Having just returned from Euro 2012 I can report that this co-existence of sport nationalism and internationalism persists and with a home Olympics  due to begin in less than four weeks has the potential to dominate this year’s summer of sport. The cosy assumption of some leftists that nationalism and internationalism are polar opposites was largely subverted in the past two and a week bits out in the Ukraine and Poland, as it has at every World Cup and European Championship that I’ve been lucky enough to follow England to since ‘Euro 96. Some of the nastiest versions of nationalism sharing space with the most popular forms of internationalism. The single European currency? For the duration of the Euros, its football not a bank note that unites Europe , and divides us too for ninety minutes, plus extra time and penalties.

Football is my passion, particularly international tournament football, but running is the sport I do, or at least make an effort at. My view is that track and field athletics is shaped by a different version of sports nationalism to football and the other major international team sports. The thrill of seeing the fastest, furthest, highest  performances shattering world records and pushing the boundaries of physical endeavour is dominant. And with individual achievement the core of athletics sports culture the attractiveness, or otherwise, of individuals and their personalities is of much greater importance too. For those of a certain age you were either a Coe or an Ovett fan and unlikely to support both with the same degree of enthusiasm.

For some this celebration of individual performance transcends any residual national preference, for most national favouritism still prevails. But even in the latter case the popular investment of emotion seems far more temporary and individually expressed compared to teams sports, most especially football. With England having qualified for the European Championship or World Cup every other summer except 2008 since 1996, plus winning the Ashes in 2005, 2009 and 2011 as England, the Rugby World Cup in 2003 as England too, there is surely little doubt that  the massive support helps prove Eric Hobsbawn’s  well-made observation ‘the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.’ Hobsbawm’s point is peculiarly appropiate to England, we have few other trappings of a nation-state and particularly since the beginnings of the devolution settlement in 1997 the salience of the St George Cross flag to emphasise Emgland’s part in Britain’s break-up has become more and more obvious. And now we have the new dynamic of First Minister Salmond seeking to lead Scotland out of the Union with the next two years.

Like it or not, 2012 will be the year of the Union Jack, stylishly redesigned for the Team GB kit by Stella McCartney. But whether London 2012’s role in sparking all this flag-waving proves a temporary respite from the seemingly irreversible drift to  separation or a more profound revival of Britishness remains to be seen.

Mark Perryman is the author of the newly published Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be. Just £8, now available direct from

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