Sport plays an interesting role in our respective cultures. Far from any branch of politics or social class, sport so often provides a national identity that we can all stand behind, one that has the power to transcend the social barriers that have so often divided nations. Indeed, sport can unite those who, in differing circumstances, would never dare to mingle.
Sport is unique in that, at the end of the day, the result doesn’t matter — life goes on, the undulating nature of our existence resumes once again, irrespective of whether Swindon Town beat Scunthorpe. Of course, that may seem a gross under-estimation of sport to the passionate football fan, who week by week barks insults at the part-time plumber on the left wing — but it’s the truth.
Perhaps this is why nations so often come together in times of sporting triumph. Sporting success can be enjoyed without fear of negative repercussions, without the fear of violence and ill-will that can erupt from the result of a bitter political election. Few things can unite a group of people better than victory for their national rugby or football team. It’s the inclusive nature of national success that makes sport so attractive — that every man on the street can come together and drink to the success of their nation in an outpouring of the kind of patriotism that only manifests itself after a few pints.
Those moments of success are one of the reasons people follow sport, but for a lot of nations, there is a deeper historical significance to certain sports as a form of national identity. The most obvious example is, of course, the New Zealand rugby team. In fact, when a lot of people think of New Zealand, the first thing that pops into their minds is rugby. Not the vast expanses of breathtaking scenery, not even the epic Peter Jackson directed Lord of the Rings trilogy which was filmed there, but rugby.
New Zealand’s domination of rugby is made even more impressive by the fact that the country has a population of less than five million. The All-Blacks have three Rugby World Cup titles to their name, including the two most recent editions of the tournament, proving that the popularity of rugby in New Zealand is certainly not on the wane. Rugby has become so enshrined in New Zealand’s way of life that it is now a matter of national pride and identity. Children are encouraged to play from a young age, and rugby pitches are to be found in the most rural reaches of the country, such is the tradition associated with rugby.
This was compounded by the country’s referendum in 2016 to decide whether or not to incorporate the silver fern and the colour black — synonymous with the All-Blacks — into the country’s flag. While the majority voted to keep the existing flag, this was still an example of how rugby has become an intrinsic part of the fabric of New Zealand culture, and how sport has a unique power to define a nation.
New Zealand is not the only country where sport plays a unique role. Take Ireland for instance, and the Gaelic games which have been played for hundreds of years. Traditionally played only by those of Catholic origin, Gaelic games in Ireland have become much more inclusive in recent times. Indeed, both Gaelic football and hurling represent qualities so often attributed to the Irish — those of physicality and intensity. Both games are inherently violent, and bloodied noses and broken bones are part and parcel of the game, but they are sports in which the nation takes great pride in calling their own.
Similarly, Canada has a unique association with ice hockey, with the Stanley Cup being the oldest trophy in North American sports. In the same way that rugby has a unique place in the hearts of New Zealanders, and Gaelic games have become synonymous with Irish culture, so too has ice hockey become a matter of national identity of Canadians, having been played in the country since the late 1800s.
While the results of sports matches and competition may be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, the power sport has to make a unique mark and contribution to a nation’s way of life cannot be underestimated. For many of us, sport is enshrined in our culture — a reflection of our moral and cultural values, and something that can be enjoyed by the masses.