Britannia rules as wave of patriotism raises flagging spirits

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Following the Jubilee parties and with the Olympics looming, we finally appear to be awash with national pride. Sarah Freeman reports.

There’s definitely something afoot. While the Queen’s flotilla down the Thames may have stretched the BBC’s Jubilee reporting team, away from the river, Britons were making the most of the double bank holiday.

Once the bunting and trestle tables had been put away for another 25 years, 10.3 million people sat down and watched the usual suspects doing their bit for Queen and country in Gary Barlow’s Buckingham Palace concert.

Then came the arrival of the Olympic Torch. Even the organisers have been surprised at just how many have turned out along the route – on the first two days of its journey through Yorkshire close to half a million watched it pass by the likes of York Minster and Aysgarth Falls.

Most assumed the English football team would perform their usual role of puncturing the celebrations, but no. Somehow, Roy Hodgson’s side has done the very un-British thing of finishing top of their group.

All of which seems to be fuelling overt displays of national pride. According to a survey by London 2012 sponsor British Airways, 38 per cent of us admitted to feeling more patriotic since the Olympic Torch landed on our soil, and more than 40 per cent have juggled their holiday plans to stay at home and watch the Games.

Such is the patriotic surge, come the opening ceremony on July 27 we might just believe that our athletes won’t be destined for glorious failure.

“In the last two decades, there’s been a complete sea change in the way we think about our sport,” says former Olympic rower Sir Matthew Pinsent, who won his first Olympic gold medal at Barcelona in 1992. “When I started my career, the default British position was ‘We’re not going to win’.

“We were madly in love with the underdog and would half support people but then back them to lose in the semi-final. But throughout the 1990s and onwards, some really important things happened. Winning the Ashes and the Rugby World Cup have been significant, we’ve had consistent success in Formula One, Andy Murray seems capable of winning a Grand Slam and we’ve had Olympic teams who have done really well time after time.

“We’ve gone from 36th on the medals table in 1996 to fourth place in 2008, so I think now the default position is not that we expect to lose, but that we take a great pride in people who do really well and we expect them to do well.

“We don’t necessarily expect them to win in the same way the Australians do, but there’s been a huge change.”

According to social anthropologist Kate Fox this overtly patriotic response is peculiar to the world of sport. And, for the English in particular, major sporting events like the Olympics give this usually reserved nation an excuse to shed their inhibitions.

“Most of us feel proud to be British at least some of the time,” says Fox. “But we’re normally a bit too inhibited, squeamishly embarrassed, or cynical to make a big gushy American-style flag-waving fuss about it, except when it comes to sport.

“Big sporting events such as the Games in London provide an antidote to our chronic inhibition and social handicaps. These events give us a temporary remission from our cynical Eeyore-ishness.

“But also I think both the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee are like carnivals and tribal festivals. They are periods of what anthropologists call ‘cultural remission’, where some of the usual social norms and rules, such as the unwritten rule which says overt demonstrative patriotism is frowned upon, are temporarily suspended.”

Add to this the communal energy, known as ‘collective effervescence’, that crowds experience when they clap and cheer together, and you get a temporarily unified group of people.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that almost all of the most popular sports and games in the world originated in England,” says Fox. “We either invented them or were the first to set down a set of official rules for them, even ski-ing.

“Games and sports are so important to us because, in my view, they’re a means to an end - the end being the sociable interaction and bonding that other cultures seem to achieve without all this fuss.

“The build up hasn’t been without some moaning about the disruption and cost of the Games,” says Fox.

“But if you whinge it gives you something in common with the person whingeing with you. So one way or another we’ll all enjoy it.”

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