Is Britain a Nation of Sporting Losers?

‘Defeat, particularly dramatic defeat, confirms our worst image of ourselves. We are not effective, after all, not truly competent, not manly in crisis.’
The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn

beachcricket2The simple answer is yes. To take just one sport, rugby union, Britain has four separate countries each with its own competitions. The league system in England is the largest integrated competitive pyramid in the world, meaning that the bottom team in Midlands 6 East (South) can theoretically, by being a team of winners, reach the Guinness Premiership. This holds true for every team in the 114 leagues across the country, but, alas, not everyone can be a winner.

If each league contains a (conservative) average of 10 teams, that adds up to 1140 teams comprising a minimum of 17,100 players (not counting replacements). Yet in any given season only 114 teams can win their league. For first-team rugby players in England, this means that each year there are roughly 1,710 winners and 15,390 losers. Britain is full of sporting losers because Britain is full of sports participants.

This is a good thing. The more players the more losers but also the greater number of winners. The more Britons who take part in sport the likelier it is that the country will discover someone who keeps on winning all the way to the Olympics or the World Cup final. This is a central and entirely rational principle of government sports policy. If you never have a go you’ll never know, and in 2005/6, Sport England commissioned the Active People Survey to find out exactly how many people in the country were having a go.

Again, these figures are for England: 21% of adults aged 16 or over, about 8.5 million people, ‘take part regularly in sport and active recreation.’ This is defined as three times a week for no less than thirty minutes, and sounds promising. On closer inspection, however, Sport England has pepped these figures by including walking the dog. Also cycling to work, and neither of these are yet Olympic disciplines.

This kind of soft-lighting is often cited as part of the problem. The nation’s sport is held back by an amateur, healthy body-healthy mind ethos which stops us taking sport seriously. Or seriously enough, and in this area the Sport England Survey throws up an interesting anomaly. There are more people in England (10.2 million) belonging to clubs and taking part in active competition than there are people taking regular exercise. This can only suggest that millions of people who compete neither practice nor train.

No wonder we’re a nation of sporting losers. Up and down the country, for over ten million people, winning and losing isn’t all that matters. If it was, they’d train more often. The fear is that this attitude, though no doubt healthy in community sport, runs through the system like a virus. It reaches the top, where British elite athletes lack the hunger for international victory. We’re short of a certain something all the way to the highest level, and pundits are quick to make this connection. After England’s disastrous Ashes tour in 2002/2003, the Times cricket correspondent Christopher Martin Jenkins headlined his concluding report: ‘Strength Of Character Holds Key To Australia’s Dominance.’

Their strength is our weakness, and notice the slippage here. We don’t lose because the Australian cricket team is better at cricket, but due to a failure of temperament. From sporting losers we slip to weak characters, wet blankets, losers in life. Britain’s elite performers lose at sport, therefore all Britons are losers.

In the epigraph to this piece, Roger Kahn was writing about baseball players tasting defeat out on the diamond. However, the sharp bite of the question – Is Britain a Nation of Sporting Losers? – comes from the implication that whatever ails the nation’s top sports-people afflicts us all. That’s why a middle-order batting collapse or Tim Henman or a penalty shoot-out can hurt so much.

If this is right, then every citizen of Britain possesses something like the opposite of a superhero’s superpower, an inherent frailty that cuts in at moments of stress. Clearly this defeatism needs to be resisted: does any characteristic apply to every Briton? Well, yes. However poorly British sports-people perform, our expectations remain unrealistically high. This Battle in Print question is only asked because of a recurring sense of sporting disappointment, even though the facts suggest that Britain does not under-achieve at international sport.

Every year, without exception, we have individuals from all classes and backgrounds who escape the curse of the flawed British temperament. Last year it was Zara Phillips, this year Lewis Hamilton. Neither of them could be world champions if the entire nation, without exception, was suffering a psychological sporting malaise. They are not alone. Britain came 10th in the medal table at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and this result needs to be seen in perspective. Britain is twenty-second in the list of countries by population, and 11th in GDP per capita. By both those measures, we over-achieve at sport, as did the sixteen British individuals who won the nine British gold medals.

Yet even so, the expectation remains that we could and should have done better. England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup and the cricket team won the Ashes in 2005. Nothing but complaints ever since. Given the evidence that we perform beyond our population and per capita GDP rankings, this disappointment is evidently subjective. It’s an emotional response that seems to confirm the accusation, so treasured by our opponents, of arrogance.

Like the figures used earlier, British arrogance originates in England. When Wales play Brazil at football, or Scotland go to the ICC Cricket World Cup, they can resist labeling their entire nation as losers if and when they lose. Brazil (population 186 million, national sport: football) will not bring the Welsh strength of character (pop 3 million, national sport: rugby) into question. The Celts are as aware of socio-historical and economic factors as anyone else – they’re not stupid.

The English, however, in this as in many other areas, have had their heads turned by history. As such, arrogance is an English problem, and only British when the English attitude infects teams of Britons at the Olympics or British individuals at English events like Wimbledon. Is Britain a nation of sporting losers? Of course not, but the English lament a sense of entitlement that comes from a direct misunderstanding of the British role in the history of sport.

At the end of the nineteenth century, British administrators discovered a talent for codifying rules for games that had crawled largely unchanged from the chaos of the middle ages. The regularization of sport then allowed for fair competition across regional boundaries, and the establishment of clubs that conformed to these rules provided a range of destinations. These two factors, rules and clubs, were exported throughout the Empire and created the conditions that ultimately bred the global sports market we see today.

The English feeling of entitlement, of arrogance, comes from the pivotal role Britain played in the early development of organized sport. However, in his book Empire Games, Roger Hutchinson describes ‘the unique and seminal creation of the British bourgeois intelligence: the club.’ It doesn’t follow that a bourgeois talent for organization will be in any way reflected by performances on fields of play.

Perhaps quite the opposite. The characteristics that allowed for consensus and the compromise of agreed rules are not the same characteristics needed to win fiercely contested games in more competitive eras. In fact, winning on a regular basis may require entirely different qualities, such as a gold-rush appreciation of risk or immigrant energy and urgency, qualities far more readily available in countries like, say, Australia.

In sporting terms, Australia is Britain’s annoyingly perfect cousin. An astonishing fourth in the medals table at the Athens Olympics, the Australian medals were distributed across fifteen sports, a range matched only by the United States, and there were no medals for cricket or rugby league or Australian Rules football.

British sport looks closely at how Australia does it. We then copy their sporting infrastructure and import their coaches as a way of rejecting the idea that our own elite sports-people fail to perform because of a flawed national temperament. This resistance should be admired, and sports administrators make careers from the rational approach: it’s not character, it’s process. We see that the Australians value their sports fields, that their sport is taken seriously to the most modest of levels, that they save forty-one sporting events by law for free-to-air television, that they have youth academies and fantastic weather for training. All we need to do is give our children the same opportunities, and we too can applaud a nation of sporting winners.

Not necessarily. If we’re looking for determining national characteristics, then the British national identity from the Romans onwards has been associated with international activity. We’ve grown to enjoy the habit of taking an active part in international events. As Britain’s political role fades, sport takes on a compensating importance. Sport is international, and Britain can be involved.

Again, it’s difficult to know why the British sporting public isn’t satisfied. In the sporting arenas of the world, there are few international events without a British entrant, from downhill skiing to archery. Earlier this year Britain had a double gold medal triumph in the Women’s World Gliding Championships, and triple gold success in Paradressage. Britian could, of course, channel the nation’s athletic resources into coxless fours rowing, and become the Ethiopians of the river. But that isn’t what this country wants, not how we define ourselves. Britain wants to be involved in everything, and then also to win at everything. English arrogance is real.

This arrogance is further encouraged by the prominence in the British sporting calendar of the old Empire sports. In cricket and rugby, we always qualify. Even when England were the worst Test-playing nation on earth, the Ashes still came round every two years. Expectations are raised as if England had reached a final, and then dashed because the players aren’t up to it. They were never up to it, but the lack of global contenders disguises this unwelcome fact.

In sports that have spread beyond the Empire nations, we can qualify for loser status at a much earlier stage, a dose of reality which ought to make losing easier to bear. It doesn’t, of course, and it may be that the question needs to be re-phrased: why can’t England win at football? In England, football at the highest level has been flourishing for years. The resources are as good as anywhere in the world, the scouting system, the competitive structure. Is English failure in international football the definitive proof of a national weakness of temperament?

The failure fits the pattern: we think we’re better than we are. We think we deserve to think we’re better than we are. We lose. If that makes Britain a nation of losers then it’s a conclusion, thankfully, we still haven’t learnt to live with. The feeling only ever lasts until the next major sporting event, which we’ll probably deserve to win.

Hutchinson, R. (1997). Empire Games: The British Invention of Twentieth Century Sport. Edinburgh, Mainsteam
Kahn, R. (Reprinted 2006). The Boys of Summer.  New York, Harper Perennial
Martin-Jenkins, C. (08.01.2003) ‘Strength of character holds key to Australia’s dominance’.  The Times.
World Population Prospects The 2006 Revision