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!