Breast-beating about our sporting setbacks has long been one of the nation's favourite sports; it can almost claim to deserve some sort of lottery handout in its own right. And we are once more in a sporting slump - our athletes returned from Athens with a few silvers and bronzes, but no gold; and our cricketers have once again been humbled by Australia, a country with a population only a sixth the size of ours. If only, as Tony Banks declared at the weekend, dreamily proposing a ban on national flags and anthems at sporting encounters, it didn't matter. If only the less likeable aspects of jingoistic nationalism could be filtered out of sport, leaving it as a playground for international comradeship and fun.
If only. It is easy enough to sympathise with Banks's views: there have been plenty of times in the recent past when the Union Flag has seemed like nothing so much as gang insignia - it fitted right in with shaven heads, tattoos, beer bellies and ugly brawls. This is the coarse side to flag-waving, but there's also a fine and sentimental one. Athletes (and viewers) frequently blub when their national colours ride up the flagpole, and no wonder: it simultaneously focuses and expresses, through a simple ritual, the enormousness of their achievement (the best in the whole wide world - a childhood fantasy come true). And the flags are easily transferable. Emotional unionists, and even those who usually wave dragons and thistles, would have been moved by the spectacle of Welsh, Scottish and Irish heads shoved between English buttocks during the British Lions' triumphant tour of South Africa. And an against-the-odds victory in next month's Ryder Cup would do more for the image of the European flag than any number of urgent polemics on the merits of currency union.
More to the point, though, competition is - like it or not - wired into the very concept of sport. Sportsmen and women begin by beating their schoolmates; then they beat other schools, then other clubs, then other towns. If they are good enough, they get picked for their countries, and then they can take on the best in the world. And in a significant symbolic sense they are ours, these sportsmen and women; they are the best we have to offer - they are picked, as the saying goes, to "represent" their countries. Nothing could be more natural than that we should want them to put us in a good light. These are our best feet we are putting forward; inevitably we are dismayed if they turn out not to be as fast or skilful as we fondly thought they were.
International sport is, if anything, growing in importance as an emblematic encounter between various competing national prides, if only because it is such an easy thing to have in common, such an available international language. When Tony Banks remarked that all the flag-waving made sport seem like "an extension of war", he was going too far; on the contrary, it is a harmless euphemism for war, an innocent way for countries that dislike one another (America and the Soviet Union, for instance) to settle their differences on a basketball court or in kayaks. Throughout history, flags and banners are what people have rallied round or united beneath. Just as national stereotypes are the basis of most jokes, so sport offers a showcase for caricatures that sway close, sometimes, to racism: thus Kenyans are all lungs and steely legs, Italians are all hot-tempered virtuosi, and we Brits are all beer-and-pickle resolve. No amount of wishing is likely to change this.
But excellence, in Britain, has always been more highly esteemed if it seemed to have been achieved with some insouciance: we have, rather perversely, never much liked monomaniac grinders such as Nick Faldo, preferring happy- go-lucky types such as Ian Botham, or cheerful losers such as Frank Bruno. This is why the whole idea of national academies seems vexing: it strikes us, especially as it relates to athletics, as a little too authoritarian. Totalitarian regimes have always liked athletics: the Russians, especially, could whisk 10-year-olds into hot-house programmes and turn out gold medal- winning gymnasts at the drop of a hat. There is another reason why the Government's proposal to make Olympic sports a priority has not been universally applauded. Put crudely, a big proportion of Britain's sports lovers do not really rate Olympic-type sports as sports. Or rather, they are sports, but not games. They are tediously statistical and quantifiable (bad for arguments in the pub); they're all about David Coleman crying, "And just listen to this ... forty seven point four - a new all-comers' European indoor best!" Only rarely do they generate the kind of national pick-me-up delivered by Britain's traditional pastimes - football, rugby, cricket, golf and even tennis. These days, if a British player gets back a couple of serves, it's time to clear the back page.
To a certain extent it is ironic that a Labour government, even a New Labour government, should be giving priority to the most emphatically individualistic sport there is. But it clearly is part of any government's role to subsidise ailing interests, and athletics certainly seems to fit the bill, even if it is at the expense of "bigger" or more historic pursuits. And perhaps that, after all, is the nub of it. Not may countries are quite so ambitious in quite so many fields as we are.
Brazilians have football, New Zealanders have their All Blacks, but neither is so arrogant to believe that they can also produce world-beaters in half a dozen other sports. But we hanker after greatness in football, cricket, rugby, golf, tennis, athletic, boxing and motor sport - not to mention anything to do with boats or horses. Are we spreading ourselves too thinly? Probably. But perhaps we owe it to our past to do so. All of these sports are - more or less (athletics is Greek) - British gifts to the world, the most durable and popular legacy of our imperial adventures. It behoves us, in a way, to keep the flag flying, even if these days it is, more often than not, at half mast.Reuse content