Canadians are dead serious about national identity and sports
On Tuesday, Basketball Canada revealed the 29 players invited to participate in their summer training camp for the upcoming 2019 FIBA World Cup. There are a lot of great players and the team might be fully comprised of NBA talent, but there is one notable omission.
After years of trying to get star guard Andrew Wiggins to suit up for the national team, this time Basketball Canada took the initiative and decided to leave the 5-year pro and former 1st overall pick at home, not even bothering to invite him to camp. While Wiggins has yet to live up to his lofty hype (the next Lebron?) he’s still the highest-scoring Canadian basketball player in the NBA and arguably it’s most talented still (Jamal Murray and R.J. Barrett beg to differ). It’s a puzzling situation on the surface, but as always, digging a little deeper reveals some clarity but also a whole new array of questions.
Wiggins last suited up for Canada in 2015 when he led Canada to a bronze medal finish at the FIBA Americas Championships. After participating as a youth in 2010 and 2012, again leading the team to bronze medal finishes, Wiggins decided to forgo international competition in order to focus on his professional career in the NBA. The latest news of Wiggins not being invited promoted many in the Canadian sports world to take a few potshots at one of Canada’s best basketball players for his lack of patriotism.
Given how riled up Canadians are right now about basketball, thanks to the Raptors championship run, it’s especially frustrating to many Canadian basketball fans that one of our best players won’t be able to help build on that momentum. If professional wins can spark fan interest, international victories provide a hyper dose of that type of enthusiasm.
Imagine for a moment, a young Canadian team taking on our rivals the Americans, the heavyweights of the sport, in a medal game or knockout scenario. Now imagine a Canadian victory, you’d see flags flying everywhere. We take our international sports seriously. Without Wiggins, it’s less likely to see this happening and that’s a little depressing.
The key here is that Canadians, perhaps more than any other nationality, associate international sport as a cornerstone of their national identity. Our current PM has called us a “post-national state” but this sense of national insecurity in our identity runs deep and has historically found an outlet in sport.
On the day of Confederation, July 1, 1867, Montreal dentist George Beers published the rules of Lacrosse in newspapers across the new Dominion. His goal, provide an activity that could graft an identity onto the new nation. In his 1869 book Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada Beers wrote “If the Republic of Greece was indebted to the Olympian games; if England has cause to bless the name of cricket, so may Canada be proud of Lacrosse. It has raised a young manhood throughout the Dominion to active, healthy exercise; it has originated a popular feeling in favour of physical exercise and has, perhaps, done more than anything else to invoke the sentiment of patriotism among young men in Canada; and if this sentiment is desirable abroad, surely it is at home.” In 1872 Canada’s first international sports team was assembled.
The Dominion Rifle Association sent its best members to compete at Wimbledon. In 1892, Lord Stanley, Canada’s sixth Governor General, donated a trophy to award a national champion in Ice Hockey and following Governor Generals adapted that ideal by donating national championship trophies for other sports as well (like the Grey Cup). From the very beginning, influential nation-builders have attempted to fuse national identity with sports.
Canadians are often known for their polite decorum and their reserved humility, especially regarding our national identity. We aren’t the flag-waving, chest, pumping, we’re #1 that we generally associate with nationalism. Yet, when athletes don the Maple Leaf, we suddenly are allowed, even encouraged to engage in national chauvinism. More than other countries, we’ve embraced Pierre de Coubertin’s (the founder of the modern Olympic movement) vision that international athletics could serve as an important cornerstone to achieving world peace. Essentially, we are allowed to brag about winning.
And Canadians do like to win. It’s not often that Canadians come in first, but when they do, we celebrate and revere them. This cultural sensibility helps to explain in part why Canadian athletes are so proud to represent their country. The stereotype comes to life when we see NHL players, after a gruelling 82 game regular season strap on the pads for international competition in the World Hockey Championships, a tournament most Canadians do not watch nor care about. For them, the chance to wear the Maple Leaf is the reward.
That’s the standard our high calibre athletes face in this country. You are expected to perform selflessly for the flag. Only after a sufficient tour of service, can you decline the invitations. In basketball, the greatest Canadian player in history Steve Nash did not play for Canada in the final years of his career starting in 2007, but this was after agreeing to play every time when asked since 1993, including captaining Canada’s Olympic teams in 2000 and 2004. Canadians become so passionate about national representation, we effectively excommunicate those who shun the Maple Leaf for other nationalities.
The visceral reactions against hockey star Bret Hull when he chose to play for team USA or against Heavyweight Champion Boxer Lennox Lewis deciding to eschew Canadian identification as a Professional despite fighting as an Amateur in Canada, even winning the 1988 gold medal in Heavyweight Boxing representing Canada. When he turned pro, he flew the British flag instead of the Red and White. That’s what Andrew Wiggins is up against. He hasn’t served the country as athletes are expected to do. There’s a long history as to why we care so much about it.