Opinion: sport is a powerful metaphor that can reveal the real values of a nation

Sport is an integral and even a defining element of the culture of a nation. It provides emotionally charged occasions for citizens to be made aware of and express their common identity within the nation. Ireland considers itself a proud sporting nation and photographs of Irish sporting achievements have become important for the development of national identity. In recent times, photographs have increasing mobility as they appear and reappear in all sorts of places and we have now entered a new era of iconic representations of Ireland where sports photographs features prominently.

But what is national identity? National identity is shared sense of belonging grounded in images and stories associated with an identifiable nation-state or longstanding ethnic population. Identity at the national level may be derived from a range of different sources – cultural, historical, social, economic and also sporting – with the emphasis on one another differing from country to country. We perform national identity daily when we speak our native language and speak in accents. We also rehearse our identity when we are rooted somewhere else.

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report on reaction to Ireland's progress in Italia '90

Images of the Irish soccer team reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1990, the Irish rugby team lifting the Six Nations Trophy, the global expansion of Gaelic games and the proliferation of successful sporting individuals such as Sonia O’Sullivan, Katie Taylor and Padraig Harrington has contributed to a change in visual representations of Irishness.

The use of sports photography in visually representing a nation is intentional and constructive on a number of levels. Such images ignore economic, religious and political reality as they focus on positive images of Ireland. These images are a-historical and can stand the test of time whereas images of urban landscapes for example, change rapidly with constant transformations in architecture, infrastructure and other contributing factors.

From RTÉ Archives, Seán Bán Breathnach commentates as Katie Taylor becomes Olympic champion in August, 2012

International sporting success- especially at tournaments like the Olympics and World Cup helps to bolster a country’s prestige both at home and abroad. It is during these international competitions that all states are faced with the pressure to establish and project a sense of national unity on the world stage. Vodafone’s recent ‘Team of Us’ campaign for the Six Nations' rugby tournament acts as an open invitation to all Irish people to join in and connect with the Irish rugby team.

But when this unity is disrupted, national identity becomes highly contested. Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy’s infamous fall out in Saipan before the 2002 World Cup is a prime example given the saga’s ability to divide opinion. Photographs emerging from the team camp of Keane and McCarthy with their heads bowed and backs turned to each other as they walked away were used by newspapers to intensify debates over who was to blame for this divisive controversy. 

From RTÉ Archives, Tommie Gorman's interview with Roy Keane after his departure from the Republic of Ireland World Cup squad in 2002

In the wake of Keane’s dismissal from the squad, players and management presented themselves as composed and adamant that this disorder in the camp would not affect their motivation to represent Ireland and perform to the best of their abilities in the tournament. Moreover, these public appearances aimed to downplay the potential disruption to the national image on an international platform. After his return from Saipan, photographs of Keane walking his dog near his home in Cheshire were used to elicit sympathy for Keane in an attempt to visualise his isolation and dejection from the Ireland squad. These stories and their corresponding photographs have the potential to stir emotions, be they delight or disgust, which demonstrates the power of national identity in the context of sports photography, and vice versa. 

On the other hand, how we use and mediate images of sporting success performs a social function as well as an aesthetic one. It says something about who we are as a nation and how we want to be seen. The video supporting Ireland’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup was replete with tricolours and scenes of supporters’ euphoria in an attempt to accentuate the nation’s capability as a sporting stronghold worthy of accommodating the third largest sporting event in the world. Whether we are guilty of being 90-minute patriots whose nationalist outpourings are expressed only at major sporting events or life-long dedicated fanatics, sport is a powerful metaphor that can reveal innate values of a nation.

From RTÉ Sport, Gary and Paul O'Donovan's win Ireland’s first ever Olympic rowing medal clinching silver in the the Men's Lightweight Double Sculls Final at Rio 2016

Ireland has enthusiastically embraced its sports stars such as Gary and Paul O’Donovan as symbolic of the country’s new identity. Every individual will have their own understanding of how sports photography may or may not be representative of a nation, but there can be no doubt that sport can stir the embers of old controversies – and often even start new ones. By embracing sports photography and national identity, we are overcoming the traditional imagery of Ireland’s rolling green fields and rehabilitating Irish people in the imagination of people around the rest of the world.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ