by Monica Mark
“We know there are billions of galaxies and yet we’re still concerned with supporting one country. At the very least you should be thinking in terms of continents. I mean, your country isn’t better than anyone else’s country just because you won something –your mentality or your sports equipment or your coach is.”
It’s day ten of the London 2012 Olympics. On screen, Christine Ohuruogu, the British athlete born and raised minutes away from the stadium, is preparing for the 400 metres finals. At our London home my gathered family are glued to the screen. The runners line up in their starting crouches, waiting. You can hear a pin drop. In this tense silence my mother cannot contain herself: “Goooooo Igbo girl, run noooow!” she screams.
As the runners power past the 300 metre bend, my brother D, tense, points out Ohuruogu is actually British.
“Ela-ma. What is your business?” comes the reply. The shouting increases. Ijaw embellishments enter the mix. “Bain, bain, baaaaaain ooooo!” When Ohuruogu finishes second place, the elders declare it a sign of “excellence for Nigeria, UK and sport,” in that order. (Clearly what is said now will not apply if any teenagers in the house decide they want to become sprinters rather than doctors, lawyers or architects)
The vast majority of fans are probably are more interested in what’s going on in the field than anything else and imposing an identity framework on sportspeople tends to say more about the imposer than anything else. Some athletes do want to make a political statement through their achievements. But even when they don’t, sportspeople often shine a powerful spotlight on identity politics.
The elders at home have now built up a pretty specific list of cheers for British athletes with Nigerian surnames in our household. For example, somewhere along the road to 2012 Philip Idowu became Idowu Philips. His rallying cry is “goooo junior brother!” Whether Idowu has twin elder siblings isn’t considered relevant. That Idowu Philips is actually the lad Philip from Hackney has not been considered at all.
TeamGB this Games is so multi-ethnic that the UK Daily Mail newspaper, beloved of bigots and boneheads, was quick to complain even before the events kicked off. It reported on the “controversy” that some 60 of those flying the British flag were “plastic Brits” born abroad.
France’s 1998 World Cup winning team produced the slogan “Black, Blanc, Beur” (“Black, White, Arab,” a play on the national flag colours), much to the resentment of some ultranationalists who declared it “not a real team.” Boxer Amir Khan has had to justify wearing tiny British and Pakistani flags on his shorts at to some people who apparently find this contradictory. Sometimes what we learn says something about the community a particular sportsperson comes from. For some African Americans, never mind gymnast Gabby Douglas had just won a historic gold medal: her hairstyle was of more concern.
More intriguing is the fever pitch of national fervour given how individualistic so many Olympics events are. I put this question to my family as we are watching the Games.
The elders have no interest, and return to supporting “the girl who is either from the Delta or Yoruba” (surname: George).
My sister K, the anomalous non-sporting fan in the family, says she just supports the two top athletes in any event. “You want it to be as close as possible – it’s more interesting that way.”
My younger brother C declares it is “regressive and idiotic” to support any country at all. “I mean, what is the purpose of even representing a country? It’s just a way of boosting morale.”
It is, he says, reminiscent of the days when people could not imagine a world beyond their particular hunter-gatherer group.
Ever the philosopher, C expands his theme: “We know there are billions of galaxies and yet we’re still concerned with supporting one country. At the very least you should be thinking in terms of continents. I mean, your country isn’t better than anyone else’s country just because you won something –your mentality or your sports equipment or your coach is.”
I am fascinated by this unexpected outburst. This is the brother we avoid on days when Arsenal loses a football match. The miniature horned journalist on my right shoulder whispers a question in my ear.
What about Arsenal, I ask.
“Oh Arsenal,” he says airily, “that’s just entertainment.”
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.