An Olympian task

An Olympian task

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My withdrawal from the United Kingdom began in Rio

Since I wrote my last blog post on the subject in the immediate aftermath of the referendum on the UK leaving the European Union, I’ve tried to avoid thinking about Brexit. To do so would have been to place myself on an emotional rollercoaster: was there any way Britain could stay in? What about a second referendum? Would a legal challenge work? Would Parliament be able to halt the process?

None of that! Along with Britain’s Prime Minister, I assume that “Brexit means Brexit” and that something will happen in due course. I will then see where the deal negotiated leaves me as a British national living in the EU and, if necessary, I will take Spanish nationality without, I have to be honest, any great enthusiasm for that either.

But, as I outlined in my previous post, whatever happens I’ve had enough of the small-minded, island mentality of the country where I was born and I’m determined to detach myself from it on all levels not necessary to continue doing my job well. So everything to do with keeping my ability to speak and write English from withering away will be maintained; I will also obviously continue to see and have contact with my family who live in the UK, and that will be as far as it goes. If England still was my home after 17 years living in Catalonia, it is no longer.

This summer provided an opportunity to test how well my personal withdrawal from the United Kingdom is going, with the festival of sport and national pride that is the Olympic Games, and I think, in general, I passed with flying colours. When I posted before on the subject, someone commented that I didn’t need to give up things I like simply because I’ve had enough of being British. And they were quite right. I enjoy sport and I like following the Olympics every four years, but I was determined not to get swept along by the nationalist medal-grabbing euphoria that dominates the BBC’s extensive coverage of the event. And this is a problem, because although the Corporation’s flagwaving can be particularly annoying, every country’s broadcasters obviously bias their own coverage to match their gold medal prospects. So, Spain was going crazy for badminton and canoeing while the Canadian coverage, which I tuned into out of curiosity on the Internet one night when the BBC was particularly irritating, seemed only to be interested in some remote chance they had of winning the pole vault.

If you are one of those people who think sport is a trivial distraction in this context of national identity, I would respectfully disagree. It’s not so many years ago that Mrs Thatcher’s right-wing right-hand man Norman Tebbit suggested a “cricket test” to see if immigrants and their children from Pakistan, India and the West Indies were really British. The critical factor was to have been the cricket team they supported in Test series when their countries of origin played against England. (Curiously, no-one ever suggested the same test should be applied to the Australians living in large numbers in West London, although I’m sure reasons for the oversight could be suggested). It’s certainly true that at previous Olympic games, particularly the more successful recent ones for the UK team, I have felt a swell of pride at the achievements of British athletes, feeling as if they were “my” team.

This time I can honestly say there was no such feeling. I enjoyed the achievements of certain medallists who happened to be British, and who I happen to admire as sportspeople, such as Andy Murray, the tennis player, and Mo Farah (who is in any case a Somalian immigrant) on the athletics track, but only in the same way as I enjoyed Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. Britain finishing with the second largest number of gold medals made no impression on me whatsoever.

My proudest feeling from the games actually came from the two medals (gold and silver) won by a swimmer called Mireia Belmonte, not because she competed for Spain but because she comes from Badalona, my home city for the last 17 years. In fact, had it been a country, Badalona, with the addition of a bronze medal won by a member of the Spanish women’s basketball team, would have finished a respectable 48th in the medal table, ahead of such European nations as Finland and Portugal.

I was pleased at this local pride having long admired the pre-nationalistic tendency, lasting well into the 19th century in countries like France, to owe loyalty not to a nation or state but to a “pays”, which was basically the immediate area where one lived. The more I think about it, the more John Lennon had the right idea:

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do…”




  1. Birgit Bonde Jensen

    Simon, what you call "small-minded, island mentality" is spreading faster than a wildfire on the continent too.

    • Simon Berrill

      You’re right, of course, Birgit. What I’d really like to do is go and live in complete isolation in the mountains somewhere, but I have a family and I don’t think they’d like it.


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