Olympics and UK Unionism

It is always tempting to take lovely sporting tables and apply them as gospel to other walks of life. So it proved with “Team GB” at its “home” Olympics.

The obvious points are well rehearsed:

  • several prominent British medallists were in fact teams made up of people from different parts of the UK – golds were won by Anglo-Scottish teams and even an Anglo-Welsh-Manx one; silvers by Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Northern Irish;
  • arguably even individual British medallists would not have been but for influences from elsewhere in the UK (a Welsh Taekwondo gold medallist trains in Manchester; a Manx cyclist world record holder is also based in Manchester; a Northern Irish bronze medallist has done much of his rowing at facilities near London; in return many English medallists needed assistance and advice from team mates and coaches from elsewhere in the UK); and
  • no “Team GB” medallist was under any doubt that it was a medal at the “home games”.

Some other less obvious points also apply:

  • there was a sense of strong support for any “Team GB” medallist in the vast bulk of households across the UK (assessed by one Scot as essentially an acceptance that “Jessica Ennis is not foreign”);
  • notwithstanding some fine individual achievements, the performance of the Irish team deprived of collective facilities was markedly poorer than that of Scottish, Welsh or NI (or arguably even Manx) Olympians even taken alone;
  • everyone in the UK and other territories represented by “Team GB” (the Isle of Man provided a medallist and a favourite; Anguilla provided a high jump finalist and so on) was able to enjoy the joint success of the team.

The immediately relevant case is Scotland, which not coincidentally has planned a referendum on separation from the UK for straight after the Commonwealth Games, which it hosts and in which England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the crown dependences and UK Caribbean territories which all fall under “Team GB” then provide separate teams. No doubt Scotland, already a disproportionately strong sporting nation, will enjoy a “host bounce” and enjoy the likes of Sir Chris Hoy winning for Scotland on home turf. It is hard to know, 24 months away, quite how this will play out – but the odds are that it will not be significant at least at a sporting level. Sir Chris was happy to be the British flag bearer and Mr Murray was happy to wear Union Flag sweat bands after all!

I do not think the Olympics will make the slightest difference to the Scottish referendum, but they do serve as a reminder of an instinctive sense across the UK that we are probably better together, at least in large part and at least for now. If, after the referendum, we have a significant vote for the Union, we will at least be in a better position to understand why!

I am always wary of cliches such as “putting the ‘Great’ back into ‘Great Britain'” – but for a fleeting moment at least these games surely put the “United” back into “United Kingdom”.


16 thoughts on “Olympics and UK Unionism

  1. Not sure if the maths was done … but did Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland beat Ireland on the medal count?

    • Athletes from the Republic of Ireland contributed 3 medals; Northern Ireland contributed 4, Wales at least 4 I can think of; Scotland at least 8 I can think of. The Isle of Man contributed 1, but that from a population less than Tallaght!

  2. Madhava says:

    At least in this part of Ireland one can have the choice to participate for team GB. Or for their own country as a unified Ireland collective . A luxury choice most Scottish participants would be envious off . I’m perfectly content living in a region where this freedom is so well exercised . The other Celtic fringes of Britian don’t have this very special and unique option .

    • Of course, the English don’t have the option either…

      • harryaswell says:

        You are obviously the complete scynic. The “United” Kingdom IS already great, by anybodies standards. Without Scotland, it would not be nearly so great, and nor would Scotland on her own. We should have the prefix “The Great United Kingdom” or GUK. What do you think?

      • “Great” in the case of Britain of course has the meaning of “big” rather than “very good” – compared to “Little Britain” (i.e. Brittany).

        “Great United Kingdom” would therefore be outrageously pretentious to say the least!

        Although the UK’s history is extraordinary, there are significant questions as to whether the country will be particularly outstanding in the 21st century. The Olympics gave a hint – but only a hint, mind – that it may yet be. It also gave a hint, for reference, that if it is to be great (in the “very good” sense) in future, it is because of its diversity, a point worth noting well!

  3. Seymour Major says:

    I believe the term “Little Britain” is more of a reference to Ireland than Brittany. The Greek Geographer Ptolemy, famous for drawing the first known map of Ireland in about the 2nd century AD made the original references to Great Britain (Megale Brettania) and Little Britain (Micra Bretannia).

    Brittany did not emerge as a region under that name until the post Roman era (5-6th century AD) when the Saxons came to Britain and displaced the Ancient Britons, many of whom settled in what is now known as Brittany and gave the region its name.

  4. Seymour Major says:

    Our team at the Olympics was called “Great Britain and Northern Ireland” but even that is not correct as it excludes the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. It is also worth pointing out that we have athletes from these islands.

    So how about changing the name of the team to the “British Islands?”


  5. Ian,

    That’s the sovereign state “Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, not the olympic team. The team was called “Great Britain Olympic Team” before its recent rebranding to “Team GB”.

    According to the IOC, teams should in general correspond with sovereign states, although that rule is honoured in the breach (Palestine, Bermuda, Chinese Taipei). That doesn’t imply that Olympic teams are called the same thing as their sovereign states. Just ask Chinese Taipei…

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