British Sporting Success

After more British success in the 2013 Tour de France, Mark Perryman, editor of a new book on last year’s London 2012 looks at what it means to a collective national identity.

A British encore in the Tour de France. Not even a sniff of winning the yellow jersey for 99 years, now we have two in quick succession. On the same day England pile up the runs at Lords to go 2-0 up in an Ashes series, for the first time since 1979. Add Andy Murray at Wimbledon ending the 77 years of hurt since the last British man won the singles title at our ‘home’ Grand Slam and the Lions tour victory down under, their first since 1997. Plus golfer Justin Rose winning the US Open, the first Englishman to win a major since 1996. 2013 already has all the signs of repeating what seemed to be an unbeatable 2012 summer of sport, topped of course by Team GB finishing third in the London 2012 Olympic medals table.

A number of writers are already suggesting that all this adds up to ‘winning’ becoming a big part of British national identity. And that national identity appears to be more inclusive than the one that comes around for major football tournaments. In a wonderful sentence that must have taxed the skills of the sub-editors at the Guardian the complexities and contradictions of British sporting success were summed up as follows :

“It would make Chris Froome the second British cyclist to win the jersey. History beckons the quiet Kenyan.”

Chris Froome, born In Kenya where he spent his childhood, first representing his country at the Commonwealth Games, educated in South Africa, wins the Tour de France as a Brit. With his right-hand man from Team Sky on the road, the Aussie Richie Porte. The same kind of mixture applies to almost all of British sporting success stories. England’s cricket team is actually England plus Wales, not to mention a handful of batsmen who could just as easily represent South Africa. Sport’s version of economic migrants except their search for a better life delivers a salary of millions and heroic status rather than at best a living wage and ritual demonisation. Andy Murray, Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s champion since Fred Perry in 1936, or Scotland’s first since Harold Mahony in 1896? Rugby’s Lions complicate matters still further by not only temporarily uniting in one team the fiercely independent rugby home nations of England, Scotland and Wales. But by adding Ireland too as one country ending the division that still defines Irish politics, north and south of a border that rugby wipes off the map.

Seasons in the Sun

Until that summer of 2012 things, in sporting terms at least, were a bit simpler. These were summers that every other year in England were dominated by our biannual foray to end those years of hurt since Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup in 1966. A semi-final in 1996, quarter-finals at World Cup 2002, Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 might be all we had to cheer for. But the relentless build up of expectation was more than enough to get the St George Cross flags flying, worn as a T-shirt, daubed on kids’ faces and after the inevitable early exit sustain the hope that it might just be different next time. 2012 stated to change all that, despite England getting to the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, going out on penalties to eventual finalists Italy, the football barely merited a footnote to that year’s summer of sport. In 2013, with no summer tournament football hasn’t featured at all of course, apart from the near-endless stream of transfer speculation. But there’s another process in motion too. These other sports are acquiring a well-deserved share of the media spotlight because we appear to be rather good at them. England’s footballers on the other hand reveal themselves time and again as also-rans at the international level while at the same time providing the central focus for a national identity, Englishness, which politically simply fails to exist. Scotland and Wales, off the pitch, can boast a civic nationalism, broadly speaking social-democratic in character. Northern Ireland remains divided between nationalist-republican and unionist politics. In England we wave our flags for an under-performing football team and not a lot else.

Success on Two Wheels

So what does ‘British’ cycling success add up to? A mix of the public and private. It was state funding that first helped deliver the years of Olympic track cycling success, from Athens 2004 onwards in particular. The Gold medal haul was quite extraordinary with absolute dominance at Beijing 2008, sprint and endurance events, men and women. Repeated once again at London 2012, with a new generation fast emerging to replace those retiring, Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy. Success that led to the ambition to translate this into winning the Tour de France. A full-time professional team, sponsored by Sky though whisper this quietly in quite un-Murdochian fashion this is a sponsorship that has a benevolence quite unlike most corporate involvement in sport. ‘From the podium to the park’ is an imaginative approach in association with British Cycling, focussed on local mass participation Sky Rides. Yes of course there is Sky branding all over the events but the essence of the message, connecting elite success to easy-to-access, informal participation which is predominantly recreational and non-competitive is hard to fault.

England’s fading football glories look unlikely to be restored at World Cup 2014, qualification is by no means certain. Summer age group tournaments rarely attract much coverage but the failure of the Under 21 and Under 20 sides to even get out of their groups at their tournaments have added to the felling that things can’t only get better. Even the women’s side who up to now had been enjoying a rising level of success failed to win a match at their Euro 2013. However international football has one significant advantage over these other sports. Its on the TV all-year round, and international home-fixtures are usually on prime-time terrestrial TV. The Ashes have been excellently covered by Sky since 2005, who also show the Lions, while cycling now gets TV time unlike before, but on ITV4; all have eroded their impact as national moments. Wimbledon is different, yet tennis really only usually achieves any kind of media profile for that one fortnight a year although ITV1 now give plenty of coverage to the French Open. A more pluralistic sports media would not only help to undermine the worst excesses of the commercial monster that modern football has become it would help these other sports play a more effective, and positive societal role in terms of the impact they can make. Cycling is the key to any connection that might be made between participation and elite success, what other ‘sport’ can you do as a way of getting to work or going to the shops. As a family day out, for a good cause or if you fancy the challenge test yourself with a 100-mile century ride.

Translating Success into Participation

There is no automatic connection between a Brit in the Yellow Jersey, thrashing the Aussies, a record Gold Medal haul and boosting sporting participation. Look at Australia, not only in cricket and rugby seen as a close rival but a nation in an earlier era that wrapped its national identity around its apparent sportiness. The Crawford Report commissioned by the Australian Government after the country finished a disappointing sixth to Team GB’s fourth in the 2008 Beijing Olympics medal table suggested that the massive skewing of sport investment to elite-level competition might be misplaced. Instead, motivation towards physical activity exists largely outside of the emulation of the achievements of elite athletes.

“Evidence shows that participation in physical activity is dominated by non-organised sport and physical recreation. Moreover, this is an increasing trend: aerobics and fitness activities were the biggest growth areas for participation between 2001 and 2008. The growth of time-poor two-income families leaves little time for sport. As a consequence, exercise is ‘purchased’ and ‘fitted into’ a schedule. People are moving towards activities that are able to suit lifestyle and time constraints and thus provide the most flexible options. Seven out of the ten growth areas in this time span were activities such as walking, running, cycling and aerobics/gym exercise—essentially activities that can be done on an individual basis. Apart from aerobics, in 2008, participation in the five most popular sports in Australia largely took the form of non-organised involvement. There is substantial growth in the number of people engaged in non-structured physical recreational activities— such as skateboarding, skiing, golf, cycling and more informally organised competitions such as mixed indoor cricket, netball and volleyball.”

The report provoked a furious response from Australia’s sporting establishment which sought to defend the enormous funding provided for high profile sports elite-level competition . Commenting on the row from afar, Observer journalist Kevin Mitchell noted drily that the report’s analysis was being accused of “ Putting the general health of the nation over medals.”

Sport’s Magnificent Triviality

Understanding sport requires a sense of their social construction, particularly by class, gender and race. Not to ruin our enjoyment of watching, and doing sport, but to enrich and inform those processes. Without that kind of engagement we won’t begin to understand how to translate sporting success into participation apart from boosting numbers doing sport, from a sofa or a bar stool. Interest defined by the number of hours per day we spend watching sport, not doing it. Such a shift is one kind of vision surely of a better society, where leisure time is freely provided, recreation for all not just for some.

But sport’s contribution to our culture isn’t just about the instrumentalism of ‘taking part. It has a cultural impact out of all proportion too, what academic Alan Tomlinson describes in the book I edit, London 2012: How Was It For Us as ‘magnificent trivia’. Alan writes “It is top-level sport’s abiding appeal that it can draw us into a Never-Never land, combining an escapist focus upon the action with a willed immersion in the magnificently trial.” It is that ‘magnificence’, heavily mediated of course, that elevates sport’s possibility to provide the opportunity to start conversations around national identity. It cannot effect change on its own, that is the task of social movements. But the latter need sport, and all manner of other forms of mass culture too, to give substance to its hopes and objectives. In the past three and a bit weeks on the roads and up the mountains of France perhaps such a politico-cultural opportunity has been starting to unfold. The greatest cycling race in the world, which in its centenary edition remains defiantly French in every detail of its character and organisation , is becoming a part of our British sporting summer too. An embrace of its vocabulary, its history and culture the kind of popular Europeanism largely absent in Westminster bubble politics, defined by the people of Europe not its democratic-deficit institutions. A British love affair with the Yellow Jersey perhaps the beginnings of an effective counter to the little Englanderism of UKiP’s isolationism masquerading as so-called independence. Parlez-vous le cycling?

Mark Perryman

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