Of separatists and sport

Scottish athletes are to Britain’s Olympic team what Quebecers are to Team Canada. Now everyone wants a piece of them.


Athletes will tell you sport and politics don’t mix, and it’s hard to blame them for peddling this fantasy—a defensive posture born of their desire to avoid distracting controversy. Believing it, however, requires you to ignore the history of Olympism, from its roots as an outlet Edwardian-era nationalism to the Games-as-metaphor for China’s rise.

At the Summer Games in London, the prevailing political theme is domestic: Scottish independence. The Team GB bandwagon, after all, has been propelled in large part by the brilliance of Scottish athletes, like cyclist Chris Hoy, a double gold medalist, and tennis star Andy Murray. Scots can take whole or partial credit for one in five of Britain’s medals—an impressive ratio considering they comprise just eight per cent of the U.K. population.

This has begotten a conversation familiar to Canadians. Supporters of independence cite the success as proof that Scotland after separation would remain a proud, vibrant nation. Opponents wonder why Scots would forsake the kingdom when the rest of its people so plainly embrace its athletes.

The Brits are not as far down this wearying road as Canadians. But they’re getting there. “If Scotland goes independent in 2014, what will happen to the Olympic Team GB for 2016?” asked the moderators of Digital Spy, a popular chatroom. A poll taken last week suggested that support for independence was falling in Scotland as Britain rose in the medals standings.

For the most part, the media have shown uncharacteristic restraint, opting to cover the actual Olympics instead of the political sideshow. But this is England: it does make the papers from time to time. Early in the Games, for example, writers for London’s jingoistic Daily Mail noticed that two Scottish players on the GB women’s soccer team, Kim Little and Ifeoma Dieke, stood silent during the playing of God Save the Queen. Little confirmed that skipping the anthem was a personal choice based on nationality. So did members of Dieke’s family.

The Mail gave them a scolding, claiming their decisions were “likely to cause huge offence to many fans of Team GB.” So did former javelin thrower and Olympic silver medallist Fatima Whitbread, saying, “I think it’s a poor show, if you are competing under a British flag and you don’t feel proud to be British.”

An editorial today’s Guardian, meanwhile, tried the conciliatory approach:

“The sense of unreality [toward Scottish independence] is unusually strong right now because the Olympics have underlined—with Edinburgh’s Sir Chris Hoy’s second gold medal adding to the mood yesterday—just how comfortable the majority of the public feels with this hugely rewarding, shared aspect of our British identity.”

Please Canada, try to stop laughing. Because we’re arguably worse off.

Here, as at seemingly every Olympics, we have endured the spectacle of separatists trying to politicize the success of Quebec athletes. And as ever, the gambit has exploded in the faces of opportunists. When French-Canadian reporters asked weighlifting medalist Christine Girard whether she considered herself a Quebecer first, or a Canadian, she held up her fingernails, which she’d painted red and white. “I’m completely Canadian,” she said.

Quebec divers Émilie Heymans and Alex Despatie have been hash-tagging their tweets #proudcanadian, which readers to a compendium of fans’ tweets cheering on Team Canada.

None of these three is anxious to wade into the mire of unity politics. But they’ve already voted with their feet, opting for the bigger team, representing the bigger country, full of people who cheer them on regardless of language or province of origin. That they’re seen to have chosen is a lamentable outcome of political reality at home that Scots and Englishmen would do well to heed. But only a fool would believe they will.




Of separatists and sport

  1. Sports are supposed to create and raise feelings of nationalism, same as all the other things like national anthems, animals, uniforms etc. Individuals aren’t competing at that level, countries are.

  2. The reason they are with “Team Canada” is to make sure they do not limit their post-olympic career in advertising. Avoid controversy, get more $$$ should a medal be won.

    • Really? They have a choice? There is a Team Québec? I doubt English Canada knows much about French-speaking athletes, that’s not where Quebec athletes will make their money with sponsorships.

    • LOL

      I think the reason they’re with Team Canada is that they’re proud Canadians, but even if that wasn’t so, surely the answer isn’t money. It’s the fact that there IS NO TEAM QUEBEC.

  3. Early in the Games, for example, writers for London’s jingoistic Daily Mail noticed that two Scottish players on the GB women’s soccer team, Kim Little and Ifeoma Dieke, stood silent during the playing of God Save the Queen. Little confirmed that skipping the anthem was a personal choice based on nationality. So did members of Dieke’s family.

    I found this interesting, given that HM is also QUEEN OF SCOTLAND. There are Scottish republicans of course, but the official stance of the SNP is to keep the monarchy. And for those not familiar with history, it’s important to note that the union of the crowns came when a SCOTTISH King (James VI) inherited the English throne from Elizabeth the first. In a sense, the English throne was taken over by a Scot, not the other way around.

    • She is Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Not England or Scotland.

    • “In a sense, the English throne was taken over by a Scot, not the other way around.”

      For those somewhat familiar with history, it’s also important to note that the House of Stewart’s hold on the crown ended with the so-called “Glorious Revolution”, when James II was deposed by William of Orange, and the Stewarts supplanted by the Hanovers, due to the fact that James II was (a) Catholic, and (b) in favour of tolerance to the practice of Catholicism by British subjects, a practice which was illegal and punishable. This bigotry was widely popular amongst the British public and remains so to this day, although obviously the executions of priests and fines of Catholics which were once commonplace have since been halted (for the time being). The Hanovers later changed their name to “Windsor” during WW1 because “Hanover” and “Saxe-Coburg” sounded too Germanic.

      Thus, it is quite incorrect to suggest that the current monarch is from a Scottish line. She isn’t, and the Scottish line in question had their throne usurped by this one. I say all this as both a loyal subject of the Queen and a Papist, but let’s keep the statements on here factual if we can, shall we?

  4. I am not sure what happens in England but in Canada there are national training centres for different sports. The national coach for each sport is based at this training centre. If you are an olympic prospect in rowing for example, chances are you have been living and training in Victoria and you likely haven’t lived in your home province in many years. You have also travelled extensively and seen much of the world. That getting out and meeting others from different backgrounds gives you a wider appreciation for the viewpoints of others and makes it easier to relate to your whole country, especially when you are on a team that encompasses members from all across it.

  5. I left Scotland for Canada in 1965 and have had a wonderful life here, mostly in the Northwest erritories, but I must say that my Scottish pride has never deserted me. The English may be whining about how unfair it is to them that Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) would dare to complain. I’ll give you one example, and it goes back to the years after WW2, when rationing of food prevailed in Scotland until late 1952; rationing meant that you needed the Coupon and the cash to get simple items like Butter, but in England, rationing was removed three years earlier! United Kingdom? Yeah right, God Save Robert The Bruce!!! We also had our own Currency under the Bank of Scotland, but if one tried to make a purchase with them in England, a Currency exchage of 5%, or 10% was deducted!!!

    Tom Brown
    Northwest Territories

    • Butter rationing ended in 1954,north and south of the border. There has never been a commission on using Scottish notes in England. I remember when the Scot’s one pound looked very much like the English fiver and fooled retailers.

      You are peddling the same lies as Salmond.

  6. Scotland was an sovereign nation until 1707 when the Act of Union was voted through by the Scottish parliament. Quebec never has been a sovereign nation. It was a colony of France and then Britain, Not even a very important French colony given how easily the French crown abandoned it. At least they got to avoid the French Revolution, the Terror, Napoleon and all that. German occupation of France in 1940 could have caused a few difficulies too if Quebec had still been a Department of France as were all othe French colonies of the time.

  7. “At the Summer Games in London,the prevailing political theme is domestic: Scottish independence.”
    Sounds as if the writer has had a few too many wee drams. It’s a really fatuous claim.

  8. I’m not saying any of these athletes are insincere, but they really have no alternative than to be Canadian patriots, since Quebec can’t field an Olympic team. Moreover, if they were to express nationalist sentiment, I’d guess they’d be ostracized by their teammates and possibly even face sanction.

  9. The Olympics are about sports not the PQ or SNP and should be enjoyed as such !! However for further research, why not watch” The history of Scotland “series on TVO mondays at 10pm and realise how politics have not changed over the last 800 yrs though at least with less killing