The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Brexit Britain: lessons from the 2016 Olympics

From the Olympics to the Tour De France, 2016 was a year full of British sporting success stories. But what can they teach us about national identity, immigration and Brexit?


At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Great Britain took home only one gold medal, placing them 36th in the medal table behind countries such as Algeria, Kazakhstan and North Korea. For self-proclaimed “Great” Britain, this was an embarrassment. And so, John Major decided enough was enough: lottery money would be used to fund UK sport, improvements would be made in terms of coaching, and Britain would be “Great” again.

Twenty years later at the 2016 Olympics in the beautiful Brazilian city of Rio De Janeiro, Great Britain finished second in the medal table with a mammoth 27 gold medals. To put this achievement into context, China placed third in the medal table with 26 gold medals. China have a population of 1.3 billion while Britain have a population of 65 million. Thus, China’s gold medal per capita was roughly one gold medal per 50 million citizens and Great Britain’s gold medal per capita was roughly one gold medal per 2.4 million citizens — around 20 times the size of China’s. It really was a brilliant summer for British sport. But what lessons can be learnt (if any) in relation to Brexit?

For some, this was evidence that we can stand on our own two feet. Great Britain, the tiny island with a population of only 65 million, competing on a global stage with the very best, ranked high above most other countries. In an interview following his gold medal victory in the 100m breaststroke, swimmer Adam Peaty said that he wanted to “thank the whole of Britain, my country, the Royal family and everything that makes me proud to be British.” In addition, Nigel Farage was quick to make political capital of Great Britain’s Olympic success, tweeting that this was evidence that “we are good enough.” But was Mr Farage right?

Go @TeamGB! Loving the Olympics. We are good enough!

— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) August 14, 2016

Others may argue that Britain owed its Olympic success to the liberal immigration policy it has adopted over the last few decades. For example, national treasure Mo Farah arrived in Britain as a child from Somalia. When Farah moved to Britain aged 8, he barely knew a word of English. But in London, Farah found a home. His English improved through his education at Isleworth and Syon School, and later Feltham Community College. In England, Farah made the transition from boy to man. Nobody knew then that they were looking at a superstar, but oh did he become one.

Arguably, Farah encapsulates the current problem with debates about immigration policy. If the UK adopted an Australian style points-based immigration system, or pressed ahead with Theresa May’s proposed plan to only accept migrant workers who earn £35,000 a year, the UK immigration system would only assess perceived ability at the point of application. What would be overlooked, however, would be an applicant’s full potential.

Nobody knew Farah would become a gold-medal winning athlete. Realistically, how could they? Assessing someone’s potential is almost impossible, as it depends on a multitude of factors ranging from an element of luck to motivation. But, Britain gave Farah the chance to become the superstar he is today, and he took it.

Similarly, British cyclist and three-time winner of the Tour De France, Chris Froome, was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. He moved to South Africa aged 14, where he then lived for several years. From 2008 onwards, Froome rode in the races under a British license due to the fact both his parents are English. Thus, Chris Froome, with his geographically diasporic background, is living evidence that national identities are dynamic and complex.

So, are Brexiteers like Mr Farage right? Did Great Britain owe its success in the summer Rio Olympics to the patriotic renewal generated from Brexit? Or did Britain’s 2016 sporting triumphs derive from historically tolerant attitudes towards immigration?

The answers to those questions are subjective. But, this debate in itself is very telling of the biggest impact of the EU referendum: instead of simply watching the Olympics and enjoying British sporting success stories, we debated politics. By “we”, I do not mean politicos who have always discussed these issues, but members of the everyday public were discussing what Great Britain’s Olympics success meant for Brexit. Undoubtedly, the EU referendum politicised Britain, be that for better or for worse.

George Santayana argued that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It is important that lessons are learnt from the British sporting triumphs of 2016, reminding us that national identities are not static or fixed. Rather, they are complex and dynamic, constantly being shaped and reproduced. Arguably, Mo Farah is emblematic of the Great British success story: an immigrant Britain gave the chance to be the superstar he is today.

  • JB

    Great article!

    As you allude to, one of the major problems in the current immigration debate is that we do not appreciate, or even acknowledge the principle that nobody is the finished product of themselves. What I mean by this is that a doctor does not become a doctor unless a state invests in the resources for them to become a doctor. The entire ‘lets have a skilled workforce and let in only skilled workers’ does not acknowledge that anybody can become skilled; it simply requires investment. We need to appreciate that principle. Yes, lets do have a skilled workforce. But that doesn’t mean we can’t invest in the unskilled to become skilled. It’s not an either/or concept. Focusing on the already skilled will solve the short term problems our economy faces. It is not however a sustainable and effective long term strategy.