An Olympian spirit of generosity

Child wrapped in Irish tricolour, another wrapped in Union flag Image copyright Christopher Madden
Image caption Two children comfortable with the issues of national identity at the Olympic games. Picture by Christopher Madden

So who are you rooting for? Team GB or Team Ireland? Or are you happy to admire the skill and dedication of the Olympic participants no matter which colour they wear?

Despite the old cliche about keeping politics out of sport, the fierce competition culminating in three flags being hoisted up their respective poles has sparked discussion amongst many observers about the nexus between athletic endeavour and national identity.

In Northern Ireland, where flags and anthems have been regular sources of controversy, this is familiar territory.

So we have had the former Smiths frontman Morrissey proving Godwin's law by likening the enthusiastic Olympics coverage to jingoism and Nazism.

Over in New York the columnist Niall O'Dowd has, by contrast, been taken aback by the warmth demonstrated by the London spectators towards Irish competitors.

Elastic concept

On Slugger O'Toole Mick Fealty has been pondering on whether Ireland could have done more to capitalise on its nearest neighbour's preparations for 2012.

Meanwhile - in a Tartan context - Alex Massie has been wondering whether Team GB's triumphs will give Scottish unionists a boost, whilst acknowledging that Alex Salmond may also derive some benefit from a good Scottish team performance in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

Here in Northern Ireland sports stars have the option to pick either Team GB or Team Ireland. Some may base their choice on a deep sense of political allegiance or national identity, others find their paths steered by how their chosen sport is organised within the island of Ireland.

Yet others may make a pragmatic decision about which route provides the best opportunity to play the sport they love at the highest level.

Whilst Northern Ireland's constitutional position is particular, the Games have provided plenty of examples of how elastic a concept national identity can be.


One of Team GB's Liverpool-born equestrian gold medallists previously competed for Ireland. Mogadishu-born Mo Farah became one of Team GB's pre-eminent heroes with his storming 10,000 kilometre finish.

In the early days of the Olympics, when the media were getting anxious about Team GB's performance, one interviewer jokingly suggested that Ruta Meilutyte's English coach should have persuaded her to switch her allegiance.

The answer - there was no way the teenage swimming star would ever be anything other than a proud Lithuanian, although that didn't stop her Plymouth classmates cheering her on every bit as loudly.

When I first saw the charming picture taken by Christopher Madden of two children at the Olympic Park, it looked exactly how life ought to be.

Sure, cheering for "us" against "them" has always been a unavoidable part of sport, but competitors like Michael Conlan, Paddy Barnes and Ian Lewers demand admiration no matter which team they represent, as do their opponents.

Getting to become an Olympian at all is beyond most of our wildest dreams. If all sport could be enjoyed with the same generosity and family friendly atmosphere which has generally accompanied these Games then the world might be a better place.