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.



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