Nationality and the nationals

Today it is the National Road Race Championships in Glasgow. I looked at the course a little while back and the Spokedoke blog has done as good a preview as I could aspire to, so I thought I would post some alternative thoughts that have been rattling around my head.

As I began to establish my blog I looked for a niche angle to focus on – there were already numerous bloggers covering the international pro scene better than I ever could. Even in 2010 it was clear that Inner Ring was a cut above, and I thought that if I had no hope of writing pieces as good as that, I’d be better off staying local and focusing on Scotland.

Allez l'Écosse

A minority of people eschew their national allegiances when it comes to sport. For example, I have heard writer Daniel Friebe say he has no real interest or passion to see British winners in cycling. As he grew up, Italian riders and racing were what excited him and is where his support still lies.

One of Scotland’s greatest riders, Robert Millar, seemed to distance himself from Scotland and Glasgow as his early pro career took off, seemingly seeing himself as an outsider and apart from his own country. However after retirement he was quoted as saying he would vote SNP if he lived in Scotland. [Richard Moore, In Search of Robert Millar]

I am proud to be Scottish – it is a beautiful country, despite the weather and our achievements down the centuries in all manner of fields, from science to literature, as well as sport, are distinguished. I was born in Edinburgh, but my mother is Welsh and my Father English. In primary school I was slagged for my accent, as my R’s pretty soft, so I made a concerted effort to change the way I spoke to avoid the jibes. How Scottish does that make me?

Sport under a national banner is a powerful thing that can unite a country. Gino Bartali was asked in 1948 by politicians to win in France to boost a fragile post-war Italy, and his victory eased the tensions of internal feuding. But the nature of sport is that it is played out within the bounds of certain rules, and the place where national lines are drawn is different to other walks of life.

David Millar custom Scotland shoes

Contrast myself with David Millar, leaving aside the Grand Canyon-sized gulf in ability for a moment. Born to Scottish parents in Malta, he grew up in various places around the world;  ‘more Scottish’ than me by blood, but arguably with less of an affinity to the place.

I have heard the fairly cynical view that he only rode the Commonwealth Games as a route to the 2012 Olympics, but this doesn’t square with the pride and cameraderie that was obvious in his statements and those of his team-mates after his bronze medal in the road race Dehli 2010. In any case, there was no guarantee of London selection at that point, with the BOA’s lifetime ban for dopers still to be challenged. With the cynical hat back on, why would he bother with the national road race in Glasgow today? He has won it before and I’d expect him to avoid risking a crash ahead of the Tour de France. But his appearance today might show that he would be proud to win in Scotland. On balance his allegiance to Scotland still seems to be more of a sporting one rather than a cultural or social one, but maybe a return for Glasgow 2014 would tip the balance.

Kilmacolm Kermesse 5th May 2013

Ben Geenwood is a domestic rider who will be riding in Glasgow today for his Hope Factory Racing team. He was selected for the Ras recently and came under some harsh scrutiny for his English nationality. He has lived in Scotland for a while, has close family connections and is as much a part of the local scene as Scottish-born pros Evan Oliphant and James McCallum. Scottish Cycling, under pressure to justify their funding, will select the strongest national team from the riders available, with the best chance of posting a good result in a big race. Ben is popular in the Scottish cycling community and will have plenty of support if he is selected for Glasgow 2014. There will be some who feel that without Scottish blood or birthplace he is ‘not Scottish enough’, but we aren’t playing by those rules.

While the rules and moral interpretation of sport are not always clear-cut at the international level, politics also come into it on a personal and at a local level. It all depends how nationalistic you want to be.

  • owen_p

    Some interesting and relevant tweets after today’s race:

    Loved the "Go Davie" shouts, there were hundreds, I've never felt more Scottish. A proud day for me, gutted I couldn't win to say thank you.— David Millar (@millarmind) June 23, 2013

    Think any doubts about my Scottishness were answered in Glasgow today. Crowd support was amazing. Didn't realise so many people knew me.— Ben Greenwood (@benjigreenwood) June 23, 2013

  • jmccabe


    Interesting article. Nationality is quite important to me; perhaps it’s a Scottish thing (especially an ex-pat Scottish living in England thing :-). I mentioned in response to one of your other blogs (the top 10 Scottish cyclists) that David Millar had written a great article in The Scotsman about his views of the Commonwealth Games, Scottishness and so on. It’s at:

    There are a lot of aspects to nationality and there seems to be no real definitive guide. Britain/UK complicates matters but I suspect the same issues arose within Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia before the break-up of those countries.

    In my opinion (and I’m not saying this is right, but) you have to judge each case individually based on a number of guidelines. The main guidelines I tend to use (rightly or wrongly, but they’re mine and no one else’s) go something like….

    The place of birth has, in general, the strongest influence but you have to take into account the family situation at the time. For example you mention that you were born in Scotland of Welsh and English parents. Assuming they had moved to Scotland, through their own choice, on a permanent basis then your claim to being Scottish is perfectly reasonable. On the other hand, as I mentioned in my comment on your other blog post, David Millar’s parents were both Scottish but had been posted to Malta due to David’s father being in the RAF. So, in this case, as there were significant outside influences in that move, and no obvious expectation that it would be permanent, David’s Scottish nationality is fairly well assured due to his parents’ nationalities, but strengthened due to the years he spent in Scotland as a youth (this is despite the fact they later moved to England and Hong Kong 🙂 Similarly I believe Graeme Obree’s parents were Scottish, on a police assignment in Nuneaton when Graeme was born so, especially as they moved [back] to Ayrshire when Graeme was a baby or toddler, that makes him Scottish.

    So, in summary, if you were born in Scotland while your parents lived there on a permanent basis, you’re Scottish. If you were born of Scottish parents while on a temporary posting to another country, you’re Scottish.

    That applies to all the other British nations too obviously.

    Clearly things get complicated if your parents have different nationalities and you were born while on a temporary posting but that gets a bit difficult to describe and is better worked out on a case by case basis. Often it will come down to where the parents’ permanent residence is; e.g. in your case, if your parents normally lived in Wales, but you were born in Scotland while they were on a posting, then I would consider you to be primarily Welsh, with a reasonable claim to representing either Scotland, England or Wales at sport!

    Unfortunately though, under my ‘rules’, just living in a country for a while doesn’t give you the right to consider yourself a ‘native’. This would probably rule out Ben Greenwood although I don’t know his family history.

    I guess, in my view, it all comes down to your comment on “blood or birthplace”; it seems rather inappropriate to me, for example, for someone who was born in England, brought up (to her teens) in Ireland then spent a little time in Scotland before going to university in England then Wales, to call herself a Scot on national TV but, as I say though, these are my own rules and everyone else is entitled to their own interpretation.

    All the best


  • owen_p

    Interesting thoughts john, thanks for commenting. Agree with you that it’s complicated and each case differs. Millar (for example) says all the right things and the longer I have paid attention to it, the more I am inclined to believe he is genuinely proud of his Scottish roots and to represent the country. I guess the only way to find out was to interview him face to face and make your own conclusions.

  • Glenorchil

    In general I believe that Nationality should be determined by place of birth / citizenship of parent(s) / naturalization process / or long term residency & obvious commitment to a place over a period of some years, anything else is just for some weird matter of convenience.