Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

A 'United' Kingdom? Nationalism, Identity and the Modern Olympic Games

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

A 'United' Kingdom? Nationalism, Identity and the Modern Olympic Games

Article excerpt

On 30 April 1906, the Intermediate Games in Athens became the site for one of the earliest political demonstrations in modern Olympic history. During the course of the triple jump Olympic medal ceremony, Peter O'Connor, a native of Waterford, Ireland, sensationally climbed the flag pole to remove the Union Jack that was cast overhead in recognition of his first place finish. (1) While his fellow countryman Cornelius "Con" Leahy stood guard below, an impassioned O'Connor unfurled a large green Irish flag embroidered with the words Erin Go Bragh (Ireland Forever), the popular maxim of the Irish Home Rule movement, and remained aloft for some considerable time waving it vigorously. As an unwilling member of the Great Britain Olympic team, O'Connor's actions represented an act of political defiance, a nationalistic demonstration aimed at drawing the world's attention towards Ireland's claims for political emancipation from Britain. The Gaelic-American enthusiastically intoned, "The thousands of spectators from all parts of the world know now, if they did not know it before, that Britain's blood stained banner is not respected or recognized by the Irish people." (2)

Irish claims for political autonomy from Britain raise much broader questions surrounding the exact identity and make-up of Great Britain during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The idea of "Britain" can be tenuously traced all the way back to Roman occupation during antiquity (AD 43-410). Over the course of the next millennium, turmoil, distrust, and forced occupation would gradually give way to more peaceful co-existence and interaction between the disparate cultural and ethnic groups that originally inhabited the British Isles. King Henry VIII's annexation of Wales with England in 1536 and the ascent of King James VI to the thrones of both England and Scotland in 1603 represented the first palpable steps towards the realization of a unitary British state. In the aftermath of a bloody Civil War, King James VII's passing of the Act of Union in 1707, joining the kingdoms of

Scotland and England (including Wales) into a political union, followed by the addition of Ireland in 1801, ensured that the idea of "Great Britain" became an enduring reality. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, rampant commercial and colonial expansion and the acquisition of a vast overseas Empire positioned Britain and the British at the forefront of a new world order. (3)

The establishment of Great Britain, an Anglo-Celtic multinational state, was not an easy process. The prevalence of insular geopolitics, fueled by competing ethnic and national identities, traditions, ideas, languages and institutions, long hampered the development of a shared sense of "Britishness." (4) This is not an historical phenomenon either, as Britain's entry into the European Union, the passing of devolution in Scotland and Wales in 1997, continued civil-strife in Northern Ireland, and the resurgence of the Scottish separatist movement currently testify. (5) In the United Kingdom, "Britishness" entailed a kind of a dual identity for each of its constituent parts. For instance, the Welsh perceived, and continue to perceive themselves primarily as being "Welsh," but in relation to foreigners they were "British." The same certainly remains true for both the Irish and the Scots. Unlike their Celtic neighbors who repeatedly asserted their own distinctiveness both politically and culturally, the English have traditionally identified themselves as being British. As the largest, wealthiest and most powerful partner in the unitary British state, the English were less inclined to trumpet their own national identity out of fear that it would threatened the "unity and integrity" of the union. (6)

The complexities and peculiarities of British identity hold particular pertinence in the world of international sport. Since the inception of competitive international sporting fixtures at the end of the nineteenth century, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales proceeded to compete as individual representative nations. …

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