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Success is the passport to being a true Brit

Wherever the eye falls across the sporting spectrum this week, be it upon tennis, golf, football or rugby, the same question stares back tauntingly. Who, to adapt the terrace chant, are we? Or put another way, what, if anything, does it mean to be British?

in its wider context, the question that has vexed this island for centuries continues to bemuse. Does Britishness bestow some shared sense of identity between the peoples of disparate nations? Or is it about no more than an expedient and increasingly strained political union, and sharing a passport guaranteeing Her Brittanic Majesty’s protection? Answers on the traditional postcard, please, because it beats the life out of me.

In sport, thankfully, the answer is simpler. ‘British’ is an honorific the English temporarily bestow on non-English compatriots who have pleased them, or might do so in the future.

A certain cherubic genius, for instance, is presently styled ‘British golfing hero Rory McIlroy’ by swathes of the media. The minor fact that Northern Ireland is not technically part of Great Britain – a pedantic point, perhaps, yet one I vaguely recall causing sectarian tensions across the Irish Sea – is trumped by a major triumph.

Had Rory suffered another bloody Sunday, on a (eight over) par with his closing round catastrophe at Augusta, he would today be ‘Northern Ireland golfing choker Rory McIlroy’.

Also currently British, after two facile Wimbledon wins, is Andy Murray. He may lose the adjective a week today after his scheduled semi-final against Rafael Nadal, though this is far from certain.

If he beats Rafa, he will clearly remain British, possibly for life (and possibly until a feckless third-round US Open defeat to Ernests Gulbis of Latvia). He would probably cling to the title by taking Rafa to five sets, while a straight-sets loss would unquestionably cost him his Britishness. The grey area concerns plucky defeat in four tight sets. In that event, Paddy Power go 10-11 the pair as to whether he will be British or Scottish in the English editions of the Saturday papers.

Although rugby union may face a variant of this conundrum should the overseas players Martin Johnson has picked for his England squad star in the World Cup and become eligible for the Lions, the question there, for now, is limited to one of Englishness. Is selecting chaps from New Zealand, South Africa and Samoa cheating? Yes it is.

Could anyone care less? Well, some people – not only disgruntled native players like Luke Narraway – certainly could. Other leading rugby nations may routinely nick talent from beyond their shores, these purists will say, but for heaven’s sake, we are supposed to be English. As, indeed, are Lennox Lewis, Greg Rusedski, Kevin Pietersen and countless others from former dominions across the seas.

Would these sticklers remain riven by outrage if Samoan-born Manu Tuilagi scored the World Cup-winning try? Would they hell. The process of genealogical revisionism would start the second the final whistle blew, and even before Manu put his mitts on the Webb Ellis trophy he would be reborn as one of the Gloucestershire Tuliagis.

Only a cadet branch of the family, of course, and nowhere near the Dukedom, but they did come over with the Huguenots.

The brutal truth about sporting patriotism is that it has nothing to do with love of country and everything to do with love of winning. Perhaps this, as much as fear of losing their independent status, explains why the FAs of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are opposed to a GB or UK Olympic football team. Such a side could not win Olympic gold, silver or bronze.

Nor, come to that, could it win Olympic copper, zinc or lead. How far down the metallic list you’d have to sink before alighting on the medal a team comprising 11 Englishmen, or 10 Englishmen and Gareth Bale, might win is unclear. But the form book discourages stopping short of Olympic depleted uranium.

If the other home countries aren’t keen on becoming sleeping partners in a doomed project, who can blame them? They will know, as Messrs Murray and McIlroy have learned, that Britishness is a gift the English are swift to confer when it is in their interest, and twice as quick to withdraw when it no longer suits.

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