Great Britons

In the early hours of June 24, news filtered through that the people of the United Kingdom had made a historic decision regarding their nation’s membership in the European Union.

In just the third referendum held in British political history, voters were given a seemingly straightforward decision to make: should the United Kingdom remain a part of the EU, or leave?

The answer for 52 percent of the voters — a small yet seismic majority — was leave. After joining the EU back in 1973, the United Kingdom would now become the first nation to step back out of the single market.

The hostile campaign and surprise result sent shockwaves through the nation. The pound fell to a 30-year low against the dollar, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation. British society became fractured.

The Leave campaign had always argued for short-term losses in favor of long-term gains, yet few could have predicted the fallout that would follow in the two weeks following the referendum. People were left questioning just what was so “great” about Great Britain — and what even was Great Britain? With its population divided politically and the geographic divides between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appearing more pronounced given their respective voting patterns, few had a firm answer.

But last Sunday, the Brexit blues took a back seat. Instead, Britain did its talking in the sporting arena, as two men — tennis player Andy Murray and Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton — led the way and brought the public together once again. It was a show of the best of the British that captured the nation’s imagination, uniting people through sporting success and helping to heal the scars the referendum had left on the country.

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As David Cameron stepped outside of 10 Downing Street, the historic residence where Prime Ministers have lived since 1905, the speech that he held in his hand was a drastic departure from the one that he had once expected to give.

The referendum had been his gamble, taken largely to appease the right wing of the Conservative party which he had led since 2005. After becoming Prime Minister at the helm of a coalition government in 2010, Cameron led the Conservatives to an unlikely outright victory five years later, his pledge for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU being a key point of support among voters.

Not until the first results began to trickle through late on June 23 did it seem possible that the Leave side would win. But at 7:51 a.m., the result was official. The United Kingdom was to leave the EU.

“The British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path and as such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction,” Cameron said, his voice catching.

“I will do everything I can as Prime Minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months but I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.”

In contrast to Cameron’s emotional speech, Leave leaders Boris Johnson, Michael Gove — both Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) — and Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (with its very raison d’être being withdrawal from the EU) celebrated. They had won the battle, but the war had just begun.

For when Cameron announced that he would be resigning, the Conservative party was thrown into a flux.

Most looked to Johnson and Gove as likely successors, the assumption being that a “Brexiteer” would carry out the motions required to leave the EU. Six Conservative MPs put their name forward to succeed Cameron as Prime Minister, only for Johnson to announce his withdrawal. The former Mayor of London, who had been a driving force behind the 2012 Olympic Games in the city, backed out due to feeling betrayed by a political colleague in Gove. But Gove soon followed when Conservative MPs failed to give him the required support. With Farage also stepping down as UKIP leader, not one of the three leading Leave campaigners would have any role in deciding the Brexit settlement.

The opposition Labour party occupied with in-fighting amid sentiment that leader Jeremy Corbyn did not do enough to back the Remain vote, leaving the electorate fearful of what would follow. Brexit was always going to result in uncertainty, but no one could have predicted it hitting such a level.

And against the backdrop of this, a second “Brexit” of sorts was taking place just across the sea in France at EURO 2016.

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England arrived at EURO 2016 quietly confident of its chances following an impressive qualifying campaign (10 wins in 10 games) and friendly victories over Portugal and Germany earlier in the year. From the outset of the first game against Russia, the team led by record goal-scorer Wayne Rooney looked lively, hungry and capable of upsetting anyone. Such hope looked justified when, after 73 minutes of trying to break down Russia’s defense, Eric Dier smashed home a free kick to give England the lead.

Yet in the final minute of the game, England began its slip down the all-too-familiar slope. After failing to clear a corner, the ball came to Russian defender Vasili Berezutski, whose header looped over the hapless Joe Hart and into the net, making the score 1-1. Two points lost for an otherwise-dominant England team.

The next game was against Wales, a team in its first major tournament since 1958, when it won its opener against Slovakia in confident fashion. Another upset looked in the cards when Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive soccer player, swerved a free kick through Hart’s gloves to give Wales the lead. A fight back from England followed with Leicester City’s cult hero, Jamie Vardy, equalizing before Daniel Sturridge worked home a stoppage-time winner, sparing the Three Lions’ blushes. Qualification was all but secured, although a 0-0 draw with Slovakia meant that Wales went through as group winners, having beaten Russia 3-0.

Alas, England fans weren’t too concerned given their next opponent would be Iceland. A nation of less than 350,000 people, Iceland appeared to be simply enjoying the party after getting through to the round of 16 thanks to a win over Austria and draws with Portugal and Hungary in the group stage. Few gave the underdogs a fighting chance against England. The odds became all-the-less favorable when Rooney converted an early penalty to give England a 1-0 lead.

What followed was the upset of the tournament. Iceland rallied, scoring two quick-fire goals, courtesy of Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, to shell-shock England. The players were thrown, leading to a lifeless and sloppy performance for the remainder of the game during which they rarely looked like scoring. A 2-1 defeat sent Iceland into the quarterfinals, its fans into raptures and England onto the plane home after another disappointing international tournament.

For the second time in the space of four days, England had left Europe.

Wales was left to fight for the “home nations” that make up the United Kingdom, enjoying its own fairy-tale run to the semifinals before falling to eventual winners Portugal. Wales’ success only made the divides between the four parts of the UK more evident. Scotland and Northern Ireland had both voted to remain in the EU, only for the English and Welsh vote to tip Leave to victory. Wales now had sporting success. England had nothing to shout about. Britain seemed to be breaking apart, the notion of a “united kingdom” challenged. Absent, rudderless management was an apt and multi-functional description for both the government and England’s soccer team.

All the doom and gloom surrounding both Brexit and the EURO 2016 humiliation of England left national morale at a low ebb. Yet in the space of two weeks, two sportsmen – two great Britons – worked wonders to get people united in celebrating sporting success. Neither Murray nor Hamilton can claim to have fixed the breaks caused by Brexit or make up for England’s EURO disaster. However, what they did do was hold the Union Jack aloft to baying crowds, reveling in their heroes’ successes.

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For a nation that boasts one of the finest tennis facilities in the world, it seems unfathomable that Britain has produced just one grand slam victor in the past 75 years.

Andy Murray arrived at Wimbledon three days after the referendum fancying his chances of a deep run in the tournament. His first appearance back in 2005 as a gawky, Scottish teenager now a distant memory, Murray was the second seed, making him one of the favorites. The only issue? No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic, who held all four majors simultaneously and had beaten Murray in the final of both the Australian and French Opens thus far in 2016, was also in the tournament.

Alas, following the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal — admittedly no longer the player he was five years ago, but a threat all the same — Murray appeared to have a trouble-free route to the final. Djokovic and tennis legend Roger Federer were paired on the other side of the draw, meaning that if Murray could continue his early-season form, a berth in the final seemed academic. It’s what the British public expected.

There is a long-running joke in the UK that Murray is Scottish when he loses but British when he wins. It is meant in jest, yet it offers a nice insight into the issues surrounding the nationality in the UK. In the United States, the question of nationhood is more straightforward, largely determined by place of birth or heritage. In the UK though, all citizens have another layer. If you’re from London, are you British, English, or both?

Such divisions become less important when it comes to sport. British people love to celebrate the success of its own sons and daughters, regardless of their more precise national allegiances. This was clear during the 2012 Olympics when Team GB lit up London, featuring athletes from all four parts of the UK. The same is true of Murray at Wimbledon, the stands filled with red, white and blue when he takes to the court.

Murray lived up to their expectations with relative ease. He didn’t drop a single set en route to the quarterfinals before being taken to five by France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, testing the resolve of Britain’s No. 1 tennis player.  A partisan crowd that packed Centre Court at Wimbledon showed their nerves. Since winning the tournament two years earlier, Murray had twice left the hungry British fans disappointed, losing in the quarterfinals in 2014 to Grigor Dimitrov and the semifinals in 2015 to Federer. When the game entered a fifth set, Murray’s fans would have been forgiven for thinking the match was about to go the same way.

Yet Murray was able to finish what he started. The pressure of seeing a two-set lead be equalized failed to rattle him as he outclassed Tsonga in the fifth, taking it 6-1. Murray’s reward had always been expected to be a final against Djokovic, yet the Serb had crashed out in the third round to American Sam Querrey. The result stunned the tennis world as Djokovic looked powerless over two days of play — extended thanks to the rain — leaving Querry to sail through in four sets.

Querry’s charge came to a halt in the quarterfinals, losing to the only other North American left in the draw: Canada’s Milos Raonic. Raonic set up a semifinal against Federer in which he added to the list of upsets, dumping the seven-time Wimbledon winner in five sets to reach his first Grand Slam final. Boasting the fastest serve in tennis and the bravado of a player yet to be weathered by the occasion of Grand Slam finals, Raonic looked capable of raining on Murray’s parade and dashing the hopes of a nation in the process.

Rain would come on the Sunday of the men’s singles final. But it would not grace Wimbledon. Instead, it played a part in another British sporting success some 90 miles north at Silverstone during the British Grand Prix.

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Standing on the grid with 15 minutes to go until the start of his home grand prix, Lewis Hamilton was going through his usual pre-race routine. The Mercedes team that had carried him to the past two Formula 1 drivers’ championships prides itself on its attention to detail, ensuring that every facet of Hamilton’s car is ready for the race. Hamilton continued waving across to the grandstands packed with fans sporting Mercedes caps with a Union Jack under its peak — as worn by Hamilton himself. Of the 120,000 fans packed into Silverstone for the race, few backed anyone else.

Hamilton’s gaze was soon drawn from the stands to the sky. A black cloud that had been brewing over the track burst, releasing a sharp rain shower onto the grid. All strategy plans were thrown out the window, the onus now being on the drivers to manage their cars and tires in the tricky conditions.

Hamilton led the field away behind the safety car, deployed due to fears about the wetness of the track, before eventually being given free rein once conditions had improved and the sun had emerged. Many of his finest victories in F1 had come in wet conditions, Hamilton boasting a confidence that most struggled to find. As the laps ticked by, his lead grew and grew before the time came to switch to dry tires.

All the while, Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg continued to struggle through the spray. The German had arrived at Silverstone cast as the pantomime villain following a last lap clash with Hamilton one week earlier in Austria — one that Rosberg was deemed to have caused. His lead in the drivers’ championship had fallen from 43 points to just 11 in the space of six weeks, putting him under enormous pressure at Silverstone. Rosberg had long struggled to match Hamilton’s pace during their time together at Mercedes, losing the title in both 2014 and 2015. Four wins in the opening four races of the year combined with some bad luck for Hamilton put Rosberg in his strongest position yet, but the momentum had swung dramatically back in the Briton’s favor in the space of a few races.

Come rain or shine at Silverstone, Hamilton was unstoppable. He eased across the line after 52 laps to pick up his fourth British Grand Prix victory, sparking jubilation in the grandstands. Rosberg came home second after a close battle with 18-year-old Max Verstappen, only to drop to third thanks to a post-race penalty.

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The significance of the win was not lost on Hamilton as he got out of his car. After celebrating with the Mercedes team, he bounced across to the fans who had made their way onto the main straight for the podium ceremony. After clambering onto the barrier, he dropped backwards into their raised hands and crowd-surfed, producing iconic images that perfectly captured the connection between driver and supporter.

“Ever since 2007, I’ve felt this incredible energy from these fans here, the best fans in the world, without a doubt, and the best crowd we have anywhere,” Hamilton said. “I really feel like I’ve grown with them over the years and obviously, naturally, when you have success that speeds up the bond, that connection you have. They really do make a huge difference. When it was wet, every time I made it through certain corners I could see in the corner of my eye the fans right there with me.

“That’s why the British Grand Prix is the best grand prix we have. Plus, look at these guys, you don’t see this anywhere around the world. We’ve got good British spirit here.”

Good British spirit was in abundance at Silverstone. Rosberg found himself on the receiving end of some booing on the podium, which, while being somewhat distasteful, summed up the tribal nature of parts of the British support which had packed the stands. Hamilton united them.

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With the champagne sprayed and the celebrations over, the fans on the straight at Silverstone turned their attention to a big screen that had played out the race an hour earlier. Murray was by now a set up against Raonic, a break point in the seventh game allowing him to hold serve and win it 6-4.

The next two sets saw Raonic put up a staunch defense against Murray, his serves reaching 147 mph — the biggest of the tournament — and preventing his opponent from breaking again.

Murray’s big tournament experience shone through in the end. Both the second and third sets went to tie-breaks; both were won with relative ease by Murray. Five championship points in hand, the fans moved to the edge of their seats, willing Murray to finish the job. At the third attempt, a strong forehand pushed Raonic into the corner, his return sailing into the net. Game, set, match, and championship to Murray.

Whereas his first Wimbledon victory in 2013 had been met with an immediate feeling of elation and delight, Murray initially seemed more relieved than anything on Centre Court. He had won a match he was the overwhelming favorite for; the upset had been avoided. As the officials rushed onto the court and prepared for the trophy ceremony, Murray sat in his chair and let the moment sink in. The now-two-time Wimbledon champion — Britain’s first multiple winner of the tournament since Fred Perry in 1935 — broke down in tears.

“I’ve had some great moments here and some tough losses, and I’m proud to have my hands on the trophy again,” Murray said. “I played really good stuff today. Milos has had a great few weeks on the grass. He’s one of the harder workers out there. And a huge thank you to everyone who came out to support me.

“The Prime Minister’s here as well,” Murray added, glancing up to David Cameron in the Royal Box. “Playing in a Wimbledon final is tough, but I wouldn’t want to be Prime Minister. It’s an impossible job.”

Cameron smiled as the crowd released a mix of claps and jeers. The two weeks that had followed the referendum had seen him take a step back from the in-fighting marring the country’s major political parties. He knew his gamble had failed and his position had become untenable.

Yet as he watched Murray sending most of the 15,000 fans in Centre Court to their feet with every point won, draped in Union Jack colours and holding their flags aloft, even for just a couple of hours, the divisions in British society would have seemed less severe. People were together, celebrating British success.

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At a time of such fragility, hostility and uncertainty in Britain, good news stories were hard to come by. Its national newspapers have been dominated by hyperbolic scaremongering, talking of crisis and mayhem — but Murray and Hamilton’s success brought some positivity to both the front and back of the papers.

“This is the biggest thing that I think I’ve experienced or at least I remember experiencing and that I’ve seen in England in terms of a change,” Hamilton said of Brexit on Saturday at Silverstone. “Whilst sometimes change is frowned upon or some change is not always welcome, I think sometimes change is a good thing. The fact is that it has happened, whether or not everyone that voted exactly knew what they were voting for. Now it’s the job of the government to make the right steps forward.

“I don’t so far believe it’s affected the grand prix. We shall see tomorrow, but for sure it’s affected people but we all have these dips and maybe the next high will be higher.” As Hamilton celebrated his victory, it was abundantly clear that Brexit had done little to dampen the British support or unity at Silverstone.

The celebrations on Centre Court at Wimbledon and the main straight at Silverstone may be microcosms within a far bigger picture, yet they act as indications of the power that sport has.

Andy Murray and Lewis Hamilton did their bit to put the “great” back in Great Britain last weekend. Two of the most significant British sportsmen of the past 10 years offered some kind of remedy to the ease the Brexit blues that have blighted the country for the past three weeks.

Sporting solace amid political polarization.

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