How sport unites the nation

Laura McAllister says sport is one arena where Wales can punch above its weight

When Wales’s cultural identity is discussed the focus tends to be on language, arts and music – the ‘traditional’ badges of our distinctive heritage. Of course, Wales is rich in all these areas and they are rightly used to promote our economy in key markets around the world. The mix helps set us apart from our neighbours. But is it a cultural cocktail that genuinely appeals and unites a nation?

After all, Wales is an increasingly diverse mix of people who, rightly, bring different ideas of what defines our culture in the past, today, and in the future. We all know that expanding audiences and reaching new groups is a constant challenge for the arts. Meanwhile, sport thrives in the numbers taking part and those watching from the sidelines. The power of sport to appeal to fans and participants alike, and also to unite the nation is unmatched by any other display of what we might call ‘Welshness’.

Whether it’s fostering safe, vibrant and healthy communities or positioning Wales as a serious and respected sporting competitor on an international stage, sport has a unique and incredible ability to ignite passion, a collective desire to succeed, and, without wishing to sound over the top, to shape a more inclusive culture for Wales in the 21st Century.

At Sport Wales our ambition is to unite a proud sporting nation. We want to increase physical activity amongst children and adults and improve standards of performance. Of course, uniting is a powerful word that articulates sport’s role in bringing people together – local authorities, governing bodies of sport, communities, coaches, adults, young people, children – and, indeed, the whole nation.

Sport is an arena where we are realistic and equal competitors at the start line. It’s also where we very much punch above our weight. As a nation, Wales is known for its passion and commitment to local sport, as well for the success of our national teams on the world stage. We’re a small nation, but one that has regularly shown it can deliver across a whole range of sports.

Look at our success at the 2008 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games. This was Wales’s most successful Olympics in 100 years, with five medals won. Meanwhile Welsh athletes secured 24 per cent of the gold medals won by Britain’s Paralympians.

But how many of us know this? We should not be known just for our rugby and football heroes. Alongside the mighty Ryan Giggs, Gareth Bale, Shane Williams and Jamie Roberts, we now have a significant number of sportsmen and women who are recognised across the world for their sporting achievement: Joe Calzaghe, Dame Tanni Grey Thompson, Dave Roberts, Geraint Thomas, and Nicole Cooke to name just a few. Following hard on their heels is an emerging generation of talent which is making its mark at junior and youth levels, and which may well provide a similar roster of household names in the future.

While there is growing recognition that sport helps us define our identity, how prevalent is the view that sport is crucially the ingredient that helps us project the idea of a Welsh nationhood? To quote, sports historian Martin Johnes:

“Although the Welsh language, music and Nonconformity have also played their part, few other forms of cultural forms are as well equipped as sport to express national identity. Its emotions, national colours, emblems, songs and contests all make it a perfect vehicle through which collective ideas of nationhood can be expressed.”

That sense of passion, the buzz, and the excitement of sport encapsulates and characterises our nationhood. Just think about a recent sporting event that got you talking with your friends, relatives and colleagues, talking about your predictions for the result and hopes for a Welsh win. Think about the day itself, and the sense of energy, excitement and anticipation that brought. And of course, that collective post-match analysis over a beer or two.

Yet is it accurate to suggest sport effectively articulates Welsh nationhood and identity? If it genuinely does unite a nation, and the people of Wales, then by definition it must also be a cultural form that positively tackles issues of discrimination – age, race, and gender. But how confident are we that this is really the case? We admit there is still much for us to do to improve equality in sport, especially for girls and women to have proper access to participating and governing, and for members of different ethnic communities to embrace sport in all its guises.

While sport clearly champions our nation, sparking huge levels of support and passion, this by no means translates into an equal sense of confidence in our ability to manage our own affairs. We all know that only 50.3% of the electorate voted in favour of the creation of an Assembly at the 1997 referendum, secured by just an infamous 6,721 votes.

We may have our own National Assembly, a shining set of world class sporting facilities, and some global mega events coming to Wales, but we remain part of a powerful British state, which articulates a whole range of diverse identities. Wales is also characterised by regionalisation. We only have to look at the different north-south focus on football and rugby to appreciate that sporting loyalties may not be equally shared right across the nation. South Wales’s historical experiences are more closely matched with those of industrial regions in England than to our rural west and north. Yet these are all creative tensions and it is these that shape our modern sporting culture.

Sport is at the heart of Welsh culture. It has an unrivalled power to unite individuals, communities, and the entire nation to project a confident sense of purpose and identity. It shapes our profile and defines us as a nation. But, to argue that sport offers a sense of uniform or unified culture that we all belong to, and celebrate, would be to discount the valid notion that we are a nation of regions, varied beliefs, interests and multiple cultures. I would say ‘viva la difference’ until that red shirt is pulled on, whatever the sport and whatever the event.

Professor Laura McAllister is Chair of Sport Wales

Also within Culture