The United Kingdom of Many Sporting Entities?

6/25/2008 – The discussions are not yet over, and emotions are still running high. Does Britain legitimately enter separate sporting teams for the different nations that "peacefully coexist within one nation state," as Scottish GM Jonathan Rowson thinks? Or is this "absurd, anachronistic, and profoundly discriminatory", as British GM Nigel Short believes? New opinions and more readers' feedback.

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The United Kingdom of Many Sporting Entities

In a recent off-topic article we wondered out loud why "the British for some reason could field teams from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and probably Northumbria, while other countries are allowed only one team apiece." Scottish GM Jonathan Rowson took offence at this remark and wrote:

"Your strangely gratuitous aside makes me wonder whether you might have been listening too regularly and without due discernment to a famous English Grandmaster. There is a sensitive issue here, and you pose a reasonable question, but to my knowledge there has been no suggestion that Northumbria, or indeed any other British region, be given international representation. Nationhood is a charged and vexed notion, but to compare Scotland and Wales with Northumbria is offensive, and betrays complete ignorance of the unique geopolitical situation in Britain, where several nations peacefully coexist within one nation state. "Heaven alone knows why" is therefore a regretfully obtuse remark, because there are good historical, political and practical reasons for the current predicament that are not particularly opaque. In fact, the opinion of this Scotttish/British GM is that Britain's messy but eminently functional geopoltical set-up is not a mistake that needs to be corrected, but a recognition of the kinds of compromises that are necessary to keep countries together, and prevent nationalism from rearing its ugly head."


Three-times British Champion, Scottish GM Jonathan Rowson

Early feedback

In our feedback article we already included a few late letters and messages, which you may have missed, since we added them after publication. Like the one sent to us by a Danish grandmaster, a tall, strapping fellow, who reminded us that his country has pulled a similar trick with the Faeroe Islands. This is a group of "sheep islands" (literal translation) between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic, equidistant between Iceland, Scotland and Norway, with a population of 48,000. It is part of Denmark. At Olympiads Denmark fields both teams separately, thus doubling its chances to win Gold.

In addition an anonymous reader reminded us of the good old Soviet days, when Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Byelorussia, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and a number of other countries, spanning twelve (!) time zones, sent one (in words: one) team to football world championships, while Britain, spanning one time zone, had four. He also reminded us that Denmark has missed a great opportunity to put together a third team at the Chess Olympiad – the Inuits, from Greenland, which also belongs to Denmark. Greenland is about ten times the size of Britain, in area.

Since publication more letters have fluttered in, notably one by the famous English Grandmaster to whom we have been listening too regularly and without due discernment.

Nigel Short, Athens, Greece

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has five federations in FIDE (England, Scotland, Wales, Jersey and Guernsey) and not four, as stated by some of your readers. Actually it even has six, if you count the British overseas territory of Bermuda. However Bermuda has a different status in that it is recognised as a separate entity by the IOC, which therefore qualifies it for FIDE membership. Thank goodness, for otherwise we would have nowhere to party at Olympiads. Note that Northern Ireland has no representation at all (nor the Isle of Man, Alderney and Sark for that matter), nor has any prospect whatsoever of obtaining it, under current FIDE regulation.


Three-times British Champion Nigel Short, now living in Greece

The situation is absurd, anachronistic, and profoundly discriminatory. It is a pity that my compatriot, the three-times British Champion, Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson, appears not to appreciate his citizenship. At least his fellow Scotsman, the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, does. Jonathan is normally highly intelligent, and I know from private discussions with him from the UK versus China match, where we played side by side – as indeed we should – that on those moments when he is capable of placing his intellect before his emotions, even he realises the exceptional weakness of his argument. It is the UK that is a member of the United Nations and the IOC. England, Scotland, Wales, Jersey and Guernsey are not – they are simply parts of that same country.

On an historical note, I believe the rot started at the Folkestone Olympiad in 1933. There, disgracefully, for the first time a Scottish team was allowed to enter alongside a British team. Can you imagine the scandal if a team from, say, Bayern were allowed to compete at this year's Dresden Olympiad?

We got away with it. However the absurdity of the situation did not go unnoticed even within our most idiosyncratic and insular nation. For example, The "British Chess Magazine" of January 1947 optimistically opined "it is anomalous that the Champion of the British Chess Federation (R.F.Combe) should belong to the Scottish Federation. However, steps for the amalgamation of the two Federations have already been taken, with, we hope, good prospects of success."

It didn't happen. Twenty four years later, in 1971, Wolfgang Heidenfeld readdressed the issue in the B.C.M., on the subject of Olympiads, "FIDE was founded as an association of chess federations, and since those days it is member federations that have the right to nominate teams. Thus both the BCF and the Scottish Chess Federation ... have always been entitled to enter teams. But ... is it not time to ponder whether this system has now outlived its usefulness and whether entry should not be confined true national entities? Last year Guensey entered a team, next year Wales is rumoured to do likewise. Yet there is a British Federation entering under its own name. Are then the people of Scotland, Wales and Guernsey not British?" Quite right, of course. Alas, Heidenfeld was whistling in the dark. Decades have passed and yet the injustice persists.

It is high time for FIDE to uphold its own statutes. Article 2.1 proudly proclaims "Only one federation of each country can be affiliated to FIDE". This is fair, reasonable and common sense. The English, Scottish, Welsh, Jersey and Guernsey Federations should be kicked out of FIDE forthwith. A newly constituted British (UK) Chess Federation should be admitted.

If Scotland eventually secedes from the UK, I will be the first to support its admission into FIDE. Until that happens, we must abide by the rules.

Nigel Short, British grandmaster



The Union Jack

The Union Flag (or "Union Jack") is the national flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, i.e. of the kingdoms of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Historically, the flag was used throughout the former British Empire. It retains an official or semi-official status in many Commonwealth Realms. The current design dates from the Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. It is put together from the flags of three kingdoms:


Merged: St George's Cross (England), St Andrew's Cross (Scotland) and St Patrick's Cross (Ireland)


Billy Harris, Bristol. UK
I'm writing to wholehearteldy support the editor's reply to Jonathan Rowson's comments regarding the "insulting" comparison between Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Northumbria. This level of petty bickering just would not happen anywhere else. I could not imagine the Serbian GM Nikolic, the Turkish Kotrionas or Israeli Ermenkov getting so worked up over such a trivial matter!

Daniel O'Dowd, Carlisle, England
With the football and nationalities thing, it is indeed very messed up. The USSR never fielded separate SSR teams, because they weren't seen as recognised independent units (although we all know how much they wanted this) and nor was this perception desired. Our technical title here is the United Kingdom of Great Britain (comprising the union of Scotland and England – Wales is classed as a principality of the latter, in the same way that in some circles one considered in the past, say, Monaco to be a principality of France, or I suppose as Guam is a territory of the USA), and Northern Ireland. I imagine it's become a hot potato recently, what with devolution: who knows, in the future if the UK itself breaks up that would solve things. I do think it's unfair we have four teams though really. Especially given the analogous situation of GB in many other sporting disciplines.

Benoit St-Pierre, Montreal
The comments of Mr. Jonathan Rowson, regarding the unique geopolitical situation of the British state, are mesmerizing, to say the least. Scotland and Wales are no countries, so why are they treated like that? Saying because FIDE says so is not arguing from reasons, but from law. Saying because Britain is endowed with some peculiar predicament is appealing to an exception. That means nobody can provide any good general reasons, except by condescending handwaving. The last remarks concerning the functionality of the predicament are simply irrelevant. But still, I wonder what nationalist threat will sprout in Britain if FIDE comes to its senses and realizes that it should have only one team. Or does that mean that chessplayers from Québec would get a national team if they hold their breath too?

Stan Walker, Rockport, IN, USA
I was quite amused with the remarks of Mr. Clive Waters of Blyth, Northumberland ("This may explain things like the American World Open and their 'World' football series – games which nobody else in the world plays except Americans! Only the USA invents games so they can win and then claims 'world'. I guess they just dont like losing in real football!"). I'm just not sure if he is being intentionally ironic or not. In the US, the football champioship is called the Super Bowl. Neither the term "World" nor "Global" is used. And it is not a series; it is a single game. Perhaps he is referring to the World Series of baseball. However, this is not a competition limited to American teams, as the Toronto (Canada) Blue Jays have twice won the World Series. And, yes, Americans do know the difference between a "country" and a "county" as all American states are subdivided into counties, except Louisiana (which is divided into parishes) and Alaska (which is not subdivided).

Iman Khandaker, Watford, UK
I find nothing strange or gratuitous about your aside regarding the multiplicity of British teams fielded in international football. 'Foreigners' are continually bemused by the fact that these 'statelets' – notable by their absence in the EU or UN – seem only to exist in the sporting arena. Let's face it, many of the governing bodies of these sports were formed in Victorian times – and still preserve some of that Victorian outlook. The bare facts of the matter are that Scotland ceased to be an independent nation in 1707, and 'the unique geopolitical situation in Britain' is in the past and cannot be referred to as if it were still current. What is not unique is that 'several nations peacefully coexist within one nation state' – the United States is host to the Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw, Sioux & Chippewa nations. I look forward to them all joining FIFA – and indeed FIDE!

Malcolm Pein, London, England
I have written to the Deutsche Fussball Bund, and indeed to Mr Low, complaining that the German football player Fritz, who incidentally should be a first team choice and not a substitute, in view of his sparkling tactical vision on the field of play, is clearly wearing the wrong shirt. He should be number 11 and not number 4. I was hoping you could add your voice to this campaign, because if the appeal comes from a lone auslander he may be dismissed as a deranged Englander.


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