The Saga of ‘Team GB’ and the Country that doesn’t know its own Name

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, April 21st 2012

This week the clock counting down to the London Olympics passed the 100 days to go mark, while the Olympic authorities announced their rigorous social media and Twitter guidelines like a rerun of some Beijing 2008 police operation.

The story of ‘Team GB’ the Olympic football project continues to offer more entertainment, bewilderment and anxiety with a ‘shortlist’ just announced of 80 players. Steven Fletcher, along with David Beckham is apparently included. Next week the draw takes place for the football competition with still a huge number of unsold tickets.

It is ‘Team GB’ that participates in the games, not ‘Team UK’.  The reason for this is shrouded in history. Great Britain was one of only fourteen national teams which competed in the first modern games of 1896 and then in 1908 the name Great Britain and the abbreviation GBR were registered by the Olympic authorities.

This is the conventional story put forward. That a UK which has undergone two World Wars, the loss of Empire and its changing role in the world, couldn’t bring itself to change the 1908 Olympic registration. If so, it says quite a bit about the nature of the UK.

Many will respond by saying this is just one of the many strange anomalies which characterise the UK: the supposed unitary state which has always had a distinctive Scotland since 1707, the fact car number plates are ‘GB’ not ‘UK’, and more importantly, that the UK is not a nation, but a state.

The British Olympic Association (BOA) has offered some convoluted explanations for why it is ‘Team GB’ and not ‘UK’. It has claimed that neither ‘Team GB’ nor ‘Team UK’ are strictly accurate, and offered the explanation that some athletes will not be from GB or UK, coming from the Isle of Man, Channel Isles or one of the many numerous British Overseas Territories.

‘Team UK would not be a completely accurate description’ the BOA commented, ignoring that ‘Team GB’ is even more inaccurate. If you are a Northern Ireland athlete you have the choice of taking part in the British or Irish teams; in the Beijing games, of the nine Northern Irish athletes, six represented Ireland and three GB.

That seemed to work for many of the athletes, but the Northern Irish devolved administration haven’t been to pleased at ‘Team GB’ and formally requested that it be renamed ‘Team UK’ to be more accurate. They were slapped down with the invoking of those dread words, ‘brand reputation’ as if that is an excuse to be inaccurate when it comes to things like this.

This debate has become even more contentious not surprisingly when the issue of football is linked to the long histories of the four national associations, national pride and identity.

The English and Scottish FAs were the first national associations of the world, and the two nations invented the modern game as we know it. The histories of Queen’s Park and the Old Etonians contributed much to how the game evolved, while for a long time for good and ill, Glasgow was with the Spiders and ‘the Old Firm’ the world capital of football.

‘Team GB’ supporters say it will bring people together and be an uplifting collective experience. Gordon Brown and David Cameron may be the usual suspects in this. More surprising was Mick McCarthy, former Republic of Ireland manager, welcoming Scottish players such as Steven Fletcher (currently out of favour with Scots boss Craig Levein) playing in the games.

Its opponents, and in particular many football fans of all four nations, view the whole project suspiciously. Why this and why now they ask? Is it about ‘Team GB’ aspiring to emulate ‘Team USA’?

To many Scots this is about ‘perfidious Albion’ aided by an English FA who have gone against the explicit, unambiguous assurances they gave to the SFA that this would not happen. The Scots were told that an English team would take the part of ‘Team GB’.

This happened in the past when ‘Team GB’ took part and won the 1908 football tournament with the English amateur team in the first London Games. And this is a clue to one of the motivations. Great Britain has taken part sporadically in the games, winning in 1912 again, and then in the second London games of 1948 under the tutelage of the great Matt Busby finishing fourth. There has been no British participation in the final games since 1960 and the qualifying rounds since 1972.

Part of this is an attempt at mobilising a great British feel good factor combining the Olympics with the Diamond Jubilee, and using the London games as a domestic and international promotion exercise.

This has been combined with attempts to browbeat the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish associations into submission. The BOA last year claimed ‘a historic agreement’ of all the football associations; quickly condemned by the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish in a joint statement, reiterating their ‘collective opposition’ to the whole enterprise.

The English FA have consistently misunderstood the anxieties of the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish associations throughout this believing that any threat to their independent status from FIFA is unfounded. What the English have failed to grasp is that a ‘Team GB’ is just as much a threat to a separate English national team; this obvious point hasn’t dawned on them once in the last few years!

Does any of this matter? Isn’t this after all just about sport and football, an activity that many think shouldn’t be in the Olympics in the first place? Will it really matter that much when an ageing, declining David Beckham leads out his team of youngsters in the summer?

Maybe it doesn’t matter as much as some football fans fear. A threat to the four nations independent status isn’t real at the moment. Yet, something more is going on than sport.

A state which doesn’t even know its name, ‘the country formerly known as Great Britain’, as the writer Ian Jack put it, is in a sticky place. ‘Team GB’ represents something which is a fiction and an illusion which doesn’t correspond with any political form.

That says something about the state of the United Kingdom as its athletes prepare to run, jump and swim this summer for one of two national teams. A state filled with uncertainty about its own identity, with rulers who don’t understand where or what it is.