Rodrigo Orihuela
Rodrigo Orihuela

The importance of national anthems in sports

The stunner pulled by the Pumas last Friday with their victory over France in the World Cup opener was a history-making moment for Argentinian rugby. The local press and supporters have been talking about it non-stop since, ahead of today’s game with Georgia.

There was, however, another event at the match, aside from the win itself, that surprised many: the passion with which the Argentinian starting XV sang the national anthem.

The combination of national anthems and sports makes for a thorny argument all over the world. Whenever Argentina, for example, participates in international events — most notably the tennis Davis Cup or anything involving the national football team — an endless number of press reporters and TV columnists go on about how it is time to eradicate anthems from sports. The commonest argument is that anthems only serve to underline team nationality and thereby create a nationalistic clash between countries when there should only be a contest between sporting teams.

Leo Rautins, coach of the Canadian basketball team, joined the critics when he admonished the anthem ceremony last month during the Olympic qualifying tournament of the Americas in Las Vegas. Rautins, who played and has spent most of his coaching career in the American NBA, said anthems were given priority over pre-match warm-ups at the tournament. “Certainly we don’t need to have the anthems at this point. If you are that far behind …” he said.

Anthem ceremonies embarrass more frequently than they move, either because they are booed by rival supporters or because reluctant athletes are caught on live television barely singing under their breaths.

Only a handful of anthems have strongly symbolic political or social meanings at one time or another. The significance of a group of white South African men in Springbok shirts singing (or attempting to sing) Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika in the early days of democratic South Africa could hardly have been equalled by any political act. Moments like these, however, are rare around the world and anthems tend to seem more like an obligation than pleasure for athletes. This may well be because anthems are not the most popular of songs in a vast number of countries.

Sometimes, certain songs or musical events can represent the national identity, unity and culture of a country far better than anthems, and can be much more heartfelt — as proven with the squabble over playing Waltzing Matilda at Wallabies games in the 2003 World Cup and as the haka demonstrates at every All Black match.

National anthems are meant to make athletes all over the world feel the pride New Zealanders and Australians show with the haka and Waltzing Matilda. A group of Spanish athletes thought something along this line this year when they started a campaign for a special anthem with lyrics to be written for their international sporting events (the Spanish anthem does not have lyrics). The athletes said they were envious of their anthem singing rivals.

Seeing the Pumas sing prior to the France match would have bolstered the Spanish argument. The Pumas sang like hardly any other Argentinian team has ever sung: loudly, vociferously, from the heart and with attitude. A bit like they played.

The attitude they showed when singing a song most Argentinians mumble rather than sing is what surprised many journalists and made them understand that these Pumas are proud of wearing their shirt in the name of their country, a feeling they share with many other national players from around the world in many sports. It also proves that, although sporting tournaments may be better off without anthems, sometimes athletes just need them to get going. And it has nothing to do with blind nationalism.