Olympics may reveal sport as last refuge for reluctant patriots

Sat, Jul 28, 2012, 01:00

All those insects racing around with a spear or ball. Make sense of it by cheering for your team, writes DONALD CLARKE

ONE OF this writer’s core principles is about to be tested. Surgeons may poke all they like – on the search for tired clichés, perhaps – but they will find not a patriotic bone in my body. Put out fewer flags. Hold back on the anthems. The hollow affectations of national pride leave me cold.

Everybody else is a hypocrite and I’m the only one prepared to tell the truth.

When practised by the English, the Americans, the Serbians, the German or the Russians, patriotism (and nationalism – its bigger, nastier brother) strikes us as being just that little bit sinister.

Somewhere in the back of our brain we hear tanks being mustered, bayonets being screwed to barrels and preparations being made for annexation.

But our own domestic class of patriotism is absolutely charming. We’re great and everybody else is ghastly. That is, after all, how the Patriot Game is played.

Okay, there is a degree of exaggeration for effect at work here, but I have never had much time for flag-waving. This may have to do with my upbringing.

Northern Ireland during the 1970s offered few advertisements for the virtues of either class of nationalism (although many managed to grow up with their allegiances intact). Painting the pavements one colour or another doesn’t appear to have brought any great amount of harmony to the relevant communities.

The brandishing of flags in that part of the world has always seemed as much to do with annoying your neighbours as with celebrating your own heritage.

I have lived in the Republic for most of my life. It’s a decent enough place to be. The climate is milder than that of Borneo. You are less likely to be asked impertinent personal questions by strangers than you are in the United States of America.

Unlike in Spain, the national sport does not involve the slow torture of blameless ruminants.

But I feel no great pride when viewing the Tricolour or hearing Amhrán na bhFiann. From where is this atavistic surge of feeling supposed to emanate? The French have a better national anthem (than anyone). The Japanese flag is the real design classic. Celebrating something as diverse as an entire nation seems as pointless as celebrating weather or outer space.

There are as many malign layabouts living in the country (more probably) as there are heroes and innovators. Indeed, patriotism is at its most potent when diversity is suppressed.

Why, just look at . . . Oh no, we had better stop there. We were about to engage the solid-fuel version of Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

Mention of Hitler, however, does bring us finally to the trigger for the current diatribe. You may have noticed that some sort of sporting event is happening in and about London.

There are two circumstances when even the greatest enemy of patriotism will be betrayed by his or her own emotions. The first is when somebody from another country begins denigrating the home nation. If an American or an Englishman makes smart remarks about, say, the low quality of our biscuits, all decent Irish people will feel hitherto unsuspected passion for both Kimberley and Mikado swelling in their breast.

The other circumstance involves sport. It requires near supernatural levels of stubbornness to watch a team game and fail to root for the side that most closely represents your own national heritage.

Here come the Olympics. Cynical jerks like your current correspondent may resist patriotic sobs when seeing the admirable Katie Taylor carry the flag, but even we will leap from our seats if she manages to wallop sufficient levels of ordure out of her unfortunate opponents.

I care more about late Etruscan poetry than I do about yachting, but a victory by our men in the Daffy Duck Class (I can’t even be bothered to check this fact in Wikipedia) will make some tiny corner of my heart throb with inexplicable pride.

Why does sport manage to stir patriotic feeling in even the least jingoistic observer? Well, the boring answer is that, when watching games, you really have to identify with somebody.

Tuning in to catch late-night BMX highlights at the Olympics, the biking virgin will unconsciously search for any clues as to whom to favour. This Australian came back from a terrifying gardening injury to head the rankings? He’ll do. Come on, Brad Bigwheel! Give ’em hell!

Dressage purists can, perhaps, sit through hours of that non- sport without needing to support a horse or rider. The rest of us require some sort of allegiance to make the business endurable.

Here’s the thing. Sport is by nature competitive. It doesn’t really work for the observer if he or she can’t find somebody to yell for. Real life is, however, altogether more pleasant when we avoid forming ourselves into teams. Leave your pavements unpainted. You’ll feel better for it.

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