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Keeping the flags flying

With England out of Euro 2012 on penalties the flag-waving build up to the London Olympics begins in earnest. MARK PERRYMAN explores the changing shape of sports nationalism, and internationalism.

David Hemery burning his way round the track to victory in the 400m hurdles, Mexico 1968. Mary Peters defying gravity as she hauls 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 becoming a twenty-first century fiftysomething I can measure out my life in the glow of the quadrennial summer Olympics. Each and every Games is remembered warmly for the achievements of other nations, as well as my own: 1968 for Bob Beamon’s long jump leap beyond the limits of human capacity. 1972, for the impish Olga Korbut tilting her head at the close of her floor routine in the gymnastics hall. 1972, 1976 and 1980 for Cuban Teofilo Stevenson’s supreme feat of winning three consecutive Golds in the Olympic boxing ring. (Teofilo was 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-mingling of nationalism and internationalism in sport was to be found aplenty in Poland and the Ukraine. The simplistic assumption of some leftists that nationalism and internationalism are polar opposites and can never coincide has been undermined by every World Cup and European Championship that I’ve been lucky enough to follow England at since ‘Euro 96. Some of the nastiest versions of nationalism have regulalry shared space with popular and inspiring internationalism. The single European currency? For the duration of the Euros, it’s been football ,not a bank note ,that has united Europe, and separated it too, at least for the ninety minutes a games lasts, plus extra time and penalties.

One of the most interesting aspects of England fans’ presence at this year’s European Championship has been the vigorous refutation of the ugly stereotyping of the Ukraine as a racist, violent and inhospitable place. Few would deny that hooliganism exists there, or that it often has far right connections. But to smear an entire nation in a sensationalist manner, as the now notorious BBC Panorama programme which alleged that for fans travelling to Euro 2012 the Ukraine and Poland would be some kind of racist hell-hole combined with hooliganism running riot, was both crude and entirely lacking in context. For example at England’s game in the Ukraine in 2009, plus European club games in Ukraine played by Arsenal, Spurs, Man City, Everton and Fulham there had been no such incidents of racism or hooliganism. None of this was mentioned.  Sol Campbell. who warned fans not to travel to the Euros in a prominent piece for the Daily Mirror found himself to be the fall guy for the fans  and the butt of one of the most loudly sung chants at many games. ‘Eff Off Sl Campbell, We Do What We Want.’ This is not the sort of internationalism the organised left is accustomed to. But England fans, both black and white, who themselves have regularly suffered misrepresentation in the media because of the hostile actions of a minority, were clear in their rejection of the same demonization of others

For every tournament since 1996, with the exception of 2008, the England football team have qualified for either the European Championship or World Cup. The Ashes were won by England in 2005, 2009 and 2011. And the Rugby World Cup was won by England in 2003. Over this period there is surely little doubt that Eric Hobsbawm’s observation that ‘the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people’ (read 15 in the case of rugby) has become especially pertinent for an England enduring the challenges to national identity thrown up by the devolution settlement introduced by New Labour in 1997. Now we have the new dynamic of Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, seeking to lead his country out of the Union within 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. Whether this will prove 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 available Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be available exclusively at

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