No medal without winding people up

Imagine for a moment that, in an effort to make sports-minded young people become involved in the London Olympics, Sports England had commissioned an advertising agency to make a publicity film. The agency decides that the best way to encourage people to compete in sport is to play up our rivalry with Australia, and hires a large, brutish actor who can more or less do an Australian accent.

The fake Aussie is filmed, unshaven and in a dirty vest, in front of an outside dunny. With a can of Foster’s in his hand, he taunts British viewers in a blearily aggressive way about their lack of success against the Australians. When his tirade ends, a message appears on-screen, “LET’S KICK SOME COLONIALS UP THE XXXX IN 2012”. Viewers are then referred to the Sports England website.

This distinctly odd, and morally dubious, way of trying to encourage competitive sport has been enthusiastically embraced by the Australian Sports Commission. In its 80-second commercial, which has been distributed online, young Australians are invited to “meet the cocky Brit that’s whinged his way to notoriety”.

A yobbish hoodie, played with a hilariously bad English accent, then appears in a small, dingy room. Poking his finger at the camera, occasionally wiping his nose on his sleeve, he sneers, “You won’t win nuffink, Aussie”, mocks the swimmer Ian Thorpe and generally behaves in a leery, aggressive manner. When he fades from the screen at the end of the film, a message appears. “LET’S RIP THE BRITS TO BITS IN 2012”.

To anyone who likes and admires Australia, its sports commission’s crude encouragement of nationalist hatred is an embarrassment, but over there the film has gone down terribly well. The government’s sports minister, Kate Ellis, has described it as “a light-hearted attempt to reach young people”, and the comments posted on YouTube suggest that it has done just that. “This guy is a tool. Reminds me how much I hate the brits,” writes one contributor. “Hahahaha…I loved it. Now your really gonna hear some poms whinge,” wrote another. “Yeah!” wrote a third. “Kick their butts!”

So the film, sponsored and commissioned by Kevin Rudd’s government, has worked: it invited boorish pommy-bashing and that is exactly the spirit in which it has been received. As for the whingeing poms, most of us will simply be too amazed at the jejune weirdness of the film to be too bothered. It actually makes the country’s attitudes to race and nationality seem grown-up and responsible.

To a British sensibility, the idea that sport should be promoted through crassly populist xenophobia is bewildering. In spite of the best efforts of sections of the press, we have become rather bad at hating other nations. Attitudes towards the Australians – or indeed the French, the Irish, the Poles or the Americans – may once have been chippy and prejudiced; now they’re more likely to be quietly envious.

It is also a bizarre notion that a potential athlete would respond to crude government-sponsored nationalism by donning a tracksuit and rallying around the flag, as if sport really were a form of war. Here, a provocatively xenophobic propaganda film would be more likely to result in unpleasant incidents in Earls Court, of wherever Australians now gather in Britain. Our response would not be as a nation or as a team, but as individuals.

That may explain why we win fewer trophies than Australians do, but it also represents a sort of maturity. There is nothing good or positive about stirring up contempt for another country, however desperate the need to win might be.