TOKYO (AP) — It was Caroline Weir’s hesitancy about a seemingly innocuous question that piqued curiosity about the British soccer team at the Olympics: Would she sing Britain’s national anthem “God Save the Queen” in Japan?
“Just for certain reasons,” she pondered, “it’s something I have to think about.”
Certain reasons — like the question of her nationality. The 26-year-old midfielder, a Scot, faced an awkward decision after agreeing to represent what is known as “Team GB” for the first time. Representing her country previously has only meant singing “Flower of Scotland” before kickoff.
The dilemma helps explain the challenges Britons face over their national identities — particularly for a proud Scot like Weir — and in forming unified sports teams.
If it wasn’t for the Olympics, Weir would never be playing soccer for Britain. Instead, as she did at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, she’d represent the saltire of Scotland — a nation with its own legal system and church.
Now consider this: “Team GB” did not technically even qualify for Olympic soccer. That place was earned by the England team. Even when an Olympics spot has been available to Britain, it has been sacrificed upon the altars of internal squabbling and the politics of world soccer.
Where did all this complexity come from? The intricate history of the British Empire, mainly.
WHAT IS BRITAIN, EXACTLY?
The fractious journey of Britain’s Olympic soccer team encapsulates the interlinking and colliding sense of belonging in modern Britain, where devolving power from the government in London to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has separated national identities.
To truly understand the conflicted sense of national affiliation requires unpacking the construction of the country. Is it Britain or the United Kingdom?
The soccer players carried passports stating “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” to enter Japan for these Olympics. But Britain only incorporates England, Wales and Scotland. It’s why people in Northern Ireland can feel piqued and neglected by the use of “Team GB” as the country’s Olympic brand.
The construct of Great Britain stems from the 18th-century Act of Union, which united Scotland with England. The broader United Kingdom to incorporate all four of the home nations — initially with the entire island of Ireland — came with the unifying act of 1801.
But even a “Team UK” wouldn’t cover all eligible athletes. The British Olympic Association’s jurisdiction covers not only the nearby Isle of Man and Channel Islands but also lands known as the British Overseas Territories, including the Falkland Islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
When soccer and rugby started to formalize more from the 1870s, there were no international opponents yet. So any games that would now be considered international fixtures saw Englishmen play against their Scottish counterparts in the two different codes of football.
It established the system in place today that established England and Scotland — as well as Northern Ireland and Wales — as separate entities in world sport.
At a soccer World Cup, there can be teams competing as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (if they qualify, as they all did in 1958). But a Britain team? No go. To confuse matters more, in rugby, Ireland plays as a united team despite the partition of 1921.
In the Olympics’ early years, Britain was represented in soccer by purely English amateur men in teams run by the English Football Association that won three golds in the early 1900s. The World Cup was first staged by FIFA in 1930.
How is this related to team GB? Because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland worried that if they joined it, they’d…