Identity, as Amartya Sen has reminded us, is not easy to define or pin down. The nation state has found a rather convenient mode of defining it: a passport. This travel document is taken as the definitive proof of a person’s national identity. Simple common sense would dictate that the issue is not that simple. It is easy to think of examples of persons who hold the passport of one country but culturally belong to another. Identity is always slippery. In the field of competitive sports, the subject of identity becomes even more complicated. A footballer born in Brazil, lives in a European country and plays for an English club. Which sense of belonging out of these three defines his identity? For the better part of his playing career, the name of George Best was practically synonymous with his club, Manchester United. But Best could never play for England as the country of his birth, Northern Ireland, claimed him. Which defined Best’s identity — his birth, his club or his talents as a footballer that transcended boundaries of nation and club? The problem is sharpened in the case of sports that are not team games — chess, golf or tennis. When Tiger Woods wins a tournament, is it a triumph for the United States of America? When Vishwanathan Anand becomes a top grandmaster, India rejoices even though it is Mr Anand’s cerebral qualities that make him the wonderful chess player that he is.
The issues discussed in the previous paragraph acquired a new salience when Li Na won the women’s singles title in the Australian Open. In her witty victory speech, Ms Li, intentionally or otherwise, did not tender the regulation “thank you” to her motherland, China. This was picked by the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, as a sign of ingratitude. It commented that Ms Li’s success “would not have been possible without her time on the national team.” There was a time when Ms Li was under the complete control of Chinese officialdom, and was forced to give up more than half of her earnings to the State. The memory of this probably rankles and this might be the reason why she missed out on the obligatory “thank you” to the Chinese State. Socialist States, when they existed, exerted complete dominance over their sportsmen and athletes, as they did over their writers and scientists. They imposed their identity on players. That era is a thing of the past but it has left unresolved the question of the identities of players.
It is easy to associate sports with national pride or shame. No one in India needs to be reminded of this. In Latin America, defeat in a football match has resulted in war between two countries. Patriotism is often described as the last resort of certain unspeakable types of people. Should it be the first and only way to describe the allegiance of a sportsman? Lurking behind this question is an even bigger one: is the country more important than the individual?