Why are the English so bad at sport?

A question posed earlier this month, not least in the wake of Scot Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory, was: Why are the English so bad at sport?

This is, of course, worth investigating.

Firstly, are they really so bad? A relatively prosperous country of 53 million, it is difficult to equate England’s performance easily. Sometimes, of course, the English compete alongside others – as with “Team GB”, the Lions, or even theoretically the England and Wales cricket team. Germany, at 83 million, and even France, at 65 million, are somewhat larger; Italy at 60 million and Spain at 47 million are marginally poorer. In a weekend which saw that aforementioned England cricket team edge out Australia and Englishman Chris Froome maintain his Tour de France lead, shortly after Justin Rose won the US Open golf championship, it is not immediately apparent that the English are so bad at sport.

Yet, in fact, I think they are. Even the cricket team relies on a healthy dose of South Africans; even Chris Froome was born and partially raised in East Africa; even Justin Rose’s accent betrays his Johannesburg origins. And then the football team is hopeless; there are no decent tennis players; and the feel-good factor from British sport victories are often not English (a Scot at Wimbledon in tennis, ten Welsh Lions in rugby, three Northern Irish major champions in golf).

Secondly, thus, why would this be? Some put it down to the weather; yet many other countries with poor weather have good sporting records (try Sweden, with just 9 million people spending half the year in the dark, which has managed four football World Cup semi-finals versus England’s two). Some suggest it is to do with the density of the population competing for facilities (yet the Netherlands seems to manage; and in any case, Serbia produced Novak Djokovic with almost no facilities at all). Some suggest the English play too many sports – so how are the English handball, ice hockey and basketball teams coming along?!

As ever, I think there are many reasons quite aside from the commonly stated one. They include:

– lack of motivation (whereas the Australians, for example, came to define themselves internationally through sport during the 20th century and thus had every reason to be good at it, the English are fairly secure about their national identity and define themselves in other ways; this would also explain why the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish are comparatively more successful despite much much lower populations);

– incompetence/complacency from invention (having invented sports and set up the initial administration of them, the English essentially became complacent and its sporting administrators particularly incompetent);

– insularity (England is peripheral from sporting innovation, be it within Europe or globally, and thus often remains technically and tactically backward – this is most obvious in football);

– lack of realisation (England simply doesn’t notice it isn’t very good at sport – not least because it can sometimes claim other “British” victories, and thus does little about it).

The good news is I suspect all of these are being tackled. In the 21st century, “Englishness” is growing as an identity (note the recent census results) and will require definition – one means of achieving that is international sporting success; some of the sporting administration is improving vastly (the Olympics, albeit theoretically British but ultimately mainly English, were a good example of a supremely well managed event in every way); England is beginning to realise its backwardness and do something about it (as with the opening of a new football academy in the Midlands); and the “lack of realisation” is being challenged.

So, why are the English so bad at sport? For the very reasons they will be quite good a generation from now!


4 thoughts on “Why are the English so bad at sport?

  1. The English will always be bad at sport. I think you make a good point about the numbers game however something like the olympics makes this irrelevant as it’s the top 2 that go through in every country. Qualification times differ in the olympics per country. The invention thing is a very good point, however the brits now can’t dominate their made up sports I. E octopush. Swimming we will never be good at as the social side of primary secondary, college and university attitudes in the uk are morally abusive towards swimmers unless mummy and daddy are rich enough to send you to private school. Footballers please don’t get me started about how every time the wind changes direction, Rooney falls over. Rugby there isn’t enough funds ding for. Golf the americans dominate and you need to be rich to play as golf clubs are damn expensive. Running well look at croydon athletics track and tooting track along with crystal palace. Q crystal palace is a good one. 14 million pumped into it and only the boiler of the swimming pool changed and that broke after a month. Good one. Now the attitude after the olympics of 2012. Well they wanted to sell the pool for council flats. Good one. It’s now 2014 and the commonwealth games has almost finished up. Great success for uk in general, however they are closing a pool down in Cornwall or something. Oh and I hear that a Japanese company is buying crystal palace gutting the pool and putting an ice rink there. I say no more.
    Qualifications = pro swimmer.

  2. mancombe says:

    commonwealth games 2014 is saying something very different, also rugby world cup win 2003 and runners up 2007. 3rd place in London 2012 and 4th in beijing. Yes the football team is pathetic and has been for a long time. I don’t think the english are bad at sports in general it just depends what sport your following, and remember every country in sports goes though ups and down.

    • I don’t think the Commonwealth Games say much – noting that Australia has only just over a third of England’s population.

      Rugby is a good example of where England underperform – with a record almost even with Wales (barely a 20th of England’s population) and a long way behind Australia and New Zealand (combined population less than half).

      Team GB is a notable exception although even there post-war performance overall has been abysmal. As recently as 1996, Team GB won just one gold medal, a total embarrassment.

      I think the English are getting better – not coincidentally along with the rise in a sense of English identity. But for a country of 53 million it seriously underperforms at almost everything.

  3. Sudeep Tarafdar says:

    Why is England so bad at cricket?

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