This essay is from my friend David Tobia, an undergraduate at USC taking Sports Diplomacy. More from this great class to come!
It’s 11:58 local time in London when the host nation finally enters Olympic Stadium. David Bowie’s Heroes blasts through speakers as the crowd sings “I – I will be King. And you – you will be queen.” Scottish Cyclist Sir Chris Hoy carries the British flag to honor his Olympic teammates as well as all the citizens of Hoy’s imagined community: Great Britain.
“Though nothing will drive them away. We can beat them just for one day – we can be heroes” the crowd continues, emphasizing the refrain: “We can be heroes!”
For the 2012 London Olympic Games, “we” includes 541 athletes – more than any other nation. And “we” does not just include English athletes, but also Imogen Bankier, a badminton player from Glasgow, Scotland and Ryan Giggs, a 38-year old Welsh footballer revered for his illustrious career with Manchester United, who has never appeared in any major international tournament.
And Luol Deng, a basketball player born in Sudan, raised in South London, and schooled in America who now stars for the Chicago Bulls. “We” even includes Richard and Peter Chambers – rowing brothers and teammates from Northern Ireland who compete for “Great Britain” even though their homeland is part of the United Kingdom, but not Great Britain. And while Richard and Peter Chambers march behind the British flag, Northern Irish boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan marched for Ireland about an hour earlier.
The Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic team complicates Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities because not only is Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) imagined, but the United Kingdom (which also includes Northern Ireland and lots of islands in the Atlantic Ocean) is also imagined… and then the Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic team matches neither Great Britain nor the United Kingdom and creates its own imagined community.
The British government hoped to use the Games as a way to unite their inherently piecemeal nation, and in ways Great Britain achieved this goal: Scottish flag-bearer Chris Hoy won two gold medals at the 2012 Olympic Games and afterwards spoke of his pride both in Scotland and Britain, and how the Games can operate as a uniting technology:
I’m British. I’m Scottish and British. I think you can be both – they are not mutually exclusive. All I can say is I’m very proud I’ve been part of this team, to be part of the British team, to be alongside my English and Welsh and Northern Irish, guys on the Isle of Man – everybody. It’s been a great team and I’m proud to be part of it.
But while athletic superstars Ryan Giggs (Welsh captain of the first British Olympic soccer team since 1960), Andy Murray (Scottish Olympic gold medalist at the 2012 Games) and Chris Hoy (Scottish cyclist and six time gold medalist – most in British Olympic history) embraced the collective nature of a unified British team, the strange structure of the team left some fans wondering who to root for as the Olympics redefined established communities. Do the Northern Irish root for Ireland, for Great Britain or for individual Northern Irish athletes? Do Scottish nationals cheer for the entire Great Britain team or do they only identify with Scottish athletes? And how do the constructed Olympic alliances and subsequent medal counts affect the casual viewer; are Irish viewers aware that Northern Irish athletes accounted for 40 percent of Ireland’s 2012 Olympic medal haul? Do they care?
There’s no simple answer to explain imagined communities within Great Britain and the United Kingdom during the 2012 Olympic Games, and even if athletes embraced their role as unifying, each fan imagines his own community differently. Some Scotts rallied behind Great Britain and allowed sport to work as a unifying technology while others used the Games as a platform to highlight Scotland’s quest for independence. With so many groupings to consider – the athletic community, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, England, Scotland, etc. – it’s difficult to discern a unified community. But we begin to see the Olympics, or at least the singular moment of Chris Hoy’s flag bearing, as a moment of unification. Hoy competes for Scotland in the Commonwealth Games, but this does not disqualify him from competing for Great Britain in the Olympics. The rules of qualification and nationality stem from a need to classify and do not reflect the true sense of unity. When Chris Hoy carries the Union flag he not only leads 541 athletes from various backgrounds into an athletic competition, but also the collection of states that make up Great Britain, and even those of the United Kingdom. Detractors and critics certainly exist, and the Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh calls for freedom deserve to be heard. But as a nation joins and sings, “We can be heroes! We can be heroes! We can be heroes just got one day!” it’s difficult to deny the unity of these imagined communities – even if it’s just for one day, one week or one Olympic Games.
 The team is officially listed as “Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic Team,” but abbreviated GB and commonly referred to just as Great Britain.
 Athletes from Northern Ireland can compete for either Great Britain or Ireland because they are legally entitled to dual citizenship as the nations continue to argue ownership of Northern Ireland.
 Great Britain hoped the Union flag would serve as a symbol of unity at the Games, but Scottish nationalists protested the removal of the Scottish flag at Hampden Park in Glasgow. Great Britain argued that since Scottish athletes competed under the “Great Britain” title for the games, then only the Union flag should fly. Scotland maintained that since the Scottish flag flies year round at the stadium it should stay alongside the Union flag. Great Britain eventually conceded and allowed both flags to fly, which some saw as an undermining of the unification of the Games.