Here’s a sport quiz for you. Name a world-class athlete who hailed from the state of Nebraska: an Olympic champion, a hall of famer, someone who was among the very best at his or her game. (And no sneaking over to Google!)
If you’re stumped, as I was, you’ll find some hints below. But first, think of another distant land with the same population as Nebraska (roughly 1.8 million), far removed from financial and industrial centers, like the state on the American Plains, with a hard climate and a waning economy. Then mix in violent sectarian conflict that turns athletic rivals into bitter enemies. Yet surprisingly, from this marginal and divided region came the greatest footballer of his generation, an Olympic gold-medalist in the pentathlon, a world champion boxer, and a young golfer hailed as the sport’s next great star. This is Northern Ireland.
Teddy Jamieson grew up in Coleraine, a small city in County Londonderry. He was a boy when the Troubles began, but as he explains in the interview, his hometown was mostly quiet in the years of bombings and shootings. Nevertheless, he was eager to leave to go to university, and he has lived in Scotland ever since. Teddy came to realize early on, however, that he would never be Scottish. That realization came while watching sports. Even though he had been desperate to leave the North, believing that there was nothing there for him, Teddy’s first loyalty—expressed spontaneously, unconsciously, when watching a football match on television—remained with Northern Ireland.
Teddy’s book Whose Side Are You On? Sport, the Troubles, and Me (Yellow Jersey Press, 2011) is, in part, a history of the mixing of sports and politics in Northern Ireland. He presents the stories of the great footballer (George Best), the Olympic pentathlete (Mary Peters), the boxing champion (Barry McGuigan), and the young golfer (Rory McIlroy), as set against the Troubles and its aftermath. But his book is also the memoir of fan who comes to understand how deeply his sports allegiances and memories shape him. In that respect, Teddy’s book—and hopefully our interview—offers insight into the experiences of any fan, whether from divided Northern Ireland or placid Nebraska.
And as for world-class athletes, Nebraska has indeed produced a few.