I spent today watching the Winter Olympics while doing armchair parenting (spinning the Twister wheel and supervising filling the trampoline with teddies).
It’s the first chance I’ve had to get engrossed in watching it – I’m not as big a fan as I am of the Summer Olympics because there are so few Brits competing (comparatively speaking) and it makes it easier to be a bystander rather than a participant. But, as I watched Elizabeth Yarnold win gold in the women’s skeleton – after throwing herself headfirst at 85mph down a hill on a tray – and listened to her interview afterwards, I finally got excited.
But I also remembered a Facebook post I’d read earlier in the week from the author Matt Haig. Now, I think Haig is brilliant – I love his books and his social media commentary is usually spot on, particularly his commentary on depression, which I find comforting. However, on Tuesday he said he didn’t understand supporting a sports person just because they “happened to be born on the same landmass.” He goes on to say “It seems tribal, to me, and tribalism is next to racism isn’t it?”
His comment made me uncomfortable because I suddenly worried that my flag-waving support of Andy Murray or the English Cricket Team (although not so much recently!) or the British Lions is somehow racist and bad. It’s hard for me to disagree with someone I respect and admire but I think in this instance I do.
For me, supporting sporting people, particularly at the Olympics, is no different to watching documentaries or reading biographies, devouring a book or following an author on social media: It’s a way of vicariously experiencing someone else’s life; a life that I will never live myself. It doesn’t matter who you follow or why. I supported USA in the hockey today, because I knew my American brother-in-law was doing the same, and it became exciting to watch, instead of background noise. It gave me a reason to care about my fellow man, rather than a reason to hate.
In terms of the tribalism aspect of nationalistic pride, I think it’s easier to follow someone from my own country because I can more easily understand their background, lifestyle and upbringing. Listening to Lizzy Yarnold speaking of growing up admiring Denise Lewis (and wanting muscles like hers!) – I could relate to that. I could picture her juggling studies with training, I could visualise her in Bath, or imagine her family smallholding in Kent. Listening to her was like listening to a friend.
The joy of watching sport, for me, mostly comes from buying into the stories and caring enough to will someone on to be the best they can be. Cheering for them, experiencing their highs and lows, pains and achievements, and – yes – crying a little as the national flag rises, the anthem plays and I feel connected to a wider world than my messy lounge in the Midlands.
It’s disingenuous to believe we live in a completely nihilistic society. Life does have meaning; being human has meaning. Forming connections with fellow humans, however we can, is intrinsic to being human. We ARE tribal, we’re a social breed. We replace neighbourhood community with nationalistic sport and social media. As our real world narrows to four walls, remote working, and 2.4 children, we reach out to experience life through other ways. To celebrate people’s successes and commiserate their failures. It’s the rise in reality TV and programs like X Factor. Give me the Olympics any day: I’d rather form an illusionary connection with an athlete who has worked tirelessly to be at the peak of physical fitness than someone looking for fame for fame’s sake.
When you break it down you could as easily support the underdog in every competition, or the one with the fanciest costume or best name (how I choose horses in the grand national.) Maybe national pride is a dangerous illusion, a foolish whim. Maybe it is racist, although I like to think I can support Lizzie Yarnold without suggesting all the other competitors are somehow inferior beings. Maybe there’s a difference between racist and racial discrimination. Or maybe it’s human nature to categorise ourselves and sport is a harmless, positive, enjoyable way to channel our basic instincts.