Learning geography from sports

The Daily Show is fond of pointing out that Americans learn their geography about other countries only when they go to war with them.

But international sporting contests are another source of information about countries and the Olympics is a good way to hear about countries that would otherwise never make the news.

For example, in looking over the official medals table yesterday, I noticed a listing for an entity known as ‘Taipei (Chinese Taipei)‘. I assumed that this was the island of Taiwan whose main city is Taipei. In looking it up, it turns out that this name was the compromise reached by the Chinese government with international sporting bodies so as to not give the impression that Taiwan is an independent country. (Another oddity I noticed in the medals table was that Germany had yet to win a single medal. True, it was only the second day of the contest but Germany used to be an Olympic powerhouse.)

Another source of endless confusion as to how they should be referred to, and not just for the Olympics, is that set of geographic regions known as England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, each of which has considerable political autonomy while still being part of a larger single entity. Great Britain consists of the single island consisting of England, Scotland, and Wales, while the United Kingdom refers to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Then there is also the republic of Ireland, whose official name is simply Ireland, which adds to the confusion since Ireland also refers to the island that makes up Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland.

In the United Nations, the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ is listed as one member state while Ireland (the republic of Ireland) is another member state. So far, so good, all clear so far.

The problem is that in international sports, all manner of other combinations occur. When it comes to the rugby World Cup, the teams listed are England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. But it is not clear to an outsider (like me) if that Ireland is Northern Ireland or the republic of Ireland or the entire island Ireland. When it comes to international cricket, England, Scotland and Ireland field teams where Wikipedia tells me that ‘Ireland’ here represents all of the island of Ireland (Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland). When it comes to the soccer World Cup, they are refreshingly explicit. The teams entered are listed as Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England, and the Republic of Ireland.

But at the Olympics, things fall apart. The teams listed are Great Britain and Ireland. Is this Ireland the island Ireland (as in cricket) or just the Republic of Ireland? If the latter, what happened to the athletes who live in Northern Ireland? Commenter MorsGotha says that the team listed as Great Britain includes Northern Ireland. Why it is referred to by the locals as ‘Team GB’ and not as the more logical ‘Team UK’, I don’t know.

On a more trivial note, when it comes to people, we speak of the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish. We also speak of the British. But there seems to be no way, as far as I know, of referring collectively to the people of the United Kingdom, which seems odd given that it is the official name of the sovereign state as listed in forums like the UN. (Maybe UKers?)

So come on, people of England/Scotland/Wales/Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland/Great Britain/United Kingdom! Help us out here with a system that the rest of the world can understand. We learned to deal with the British system of masses and lengths but these complications are just too much.

(After I had prepared this post, commenter Carl sent along this link that tries to clarify this issue.)


  1. Naughtius Maximus says

    The term British Isles includes Ireland (the republic that is), but some Irish aren’t too fond of it. Also Ulster (a province of nine counties)is sometimes used for Northern Ireland even though some of Ulster is in the Republic of Ireland and the most Northerly part of Ireland is in the Republic.
    The rugby team for Ireland is both the republic and Northern Ireland, at the start of the games they don’t use the Irish national anthem. The football (soccer teams) are divided into the Republic and Northern Ireland.

  2. AsqJames says

    Youtuber C.G.P. Grey has a pretty comprehensive explanation here.

    The only thing I’d point out is that while it may be technically correct that the denizens of Northern Ireland may be labeled “British” (in addition to “Northern Irish”), a not insignificant percentage of them might get a little upset were you to do so to their face.

    Incidentally, while the international cricket team is “England”, the players are selected by the “England and Wales Cricket Board”. I’m prepared to be proved wrong, but I don’t think Wales have their own team*. Actually, if you looked at the birthplace and nationality of the members of the “England” cricket team over the last few years you might think Ireland, South Africa and a few other places lack one too.

  3. Andrew G. says

    The United Kingdom is identified by the country code “GB” (rather than “UK”) in almost all contexts because when standardizing the codes (for ISO 3166), “UK” was disputed between the UK and the Ukraine, and the rule in such cases is that neither country gets it, hence the UK ended up with “GB” as a second choice and the Ukraine is “UA”.

    One exception is the .uk Internet TLD, which is established as an exception because it was already too heavily used by the time anyone proposed migrating it to .gb.

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