Why Britain’s Bad at Sports from Wimbledon to the World Cup

The British are once again spectators at Wimbledon. William Underhill reflects on their dreary athletic record.

A too-easy answer to a powerful serve, a cross-court thwack, and after three hours it’s all over. Game, set, and match to defending champion Rafael Nadal. An impassive Andy Murray, the latest British tennis star to raise the nation’s hopes, loses his third consecutive semi-final at Wimbledon and heads for the sidelines. At the British birthplace of tennis, Britain is again left without a contender.

Another summer, another disappointment. It’s now been 75 years since a British male won the men’s final at Wimbledon; 34 years since a British woman collected the singles trophy. Defeat for the national champion, followed by a round of soul-searching in the media, is as much a part of the tournament as drizzling skies and over-priced strawberries. As the world’s number-four seed, Murray was good—but not good enough to buck the trend.

And for a nation of sports lovers, it hurts. Badly. Failure at tennis is only the most extreme example—last year the national team took a drubbing from tiny Lithuania in the Davis Cup—of a wider problem that gnaws at British self-esteem. A country that gave the world, or codified the rules, of some of its most popular sports from soccer and rugby to golf and tennis, is a serial under-achiever at the international level.

Consider the record. England hasn’t won the soccer World Cup since 1966. At the last world championship in South Africa in 2010, the English side scraped an embarrassing 1-1 draw with America before being knocked out by the Germans. At cricket, England is at best a patchy performer. The international cricket championship in India last summer saw the national side defeated by Ireland, a country where cricket lovers are numbered in the low thousands.

Okay, there are some consoling exceptions. Think only of the triumph of 22-year-old golfing prodigy Golfer Rory McIlroy from Northern Ireland at the U.S. Open last month. But optimistic talk of a new golden age of British sport has too often proved unfounded. Back in 2003, England won the Rugby world cup final to deafening applause. Now the English team takes fifth place in the world rankings behind Ireland and former colonies New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, while Scotland trails in ninth place.

There are familiar excuses in plenty. Somehow the British devised a range of sports heroically unsuited to the dreary local climate. Tennis is always going to be more attractive to an aspiring Wimbledon champion in Miami than in rainy Manchester. Playing golf on Scotland’s famous seaside courses swept by northeast winds is only for the expert or determined in the winter months.

Otherwise, there’s always official thrift and private greed to blame. In the interests of economic efficiency, many schools were encouraged to sell their playing fields in the 1980s, leaving a generation with nowhere to train. Meanwhile, the money-driven owners of the country’s top soccer teams have packed their squads with foreign superstars, denying British players a chance to develop their skills at the highest level.

But such excuses won’t satisfy the pundits eager to see sport as a metaphor for national decline. For the gloomy, Britain’s failure demonstrates the flabbiness of a generation that can’t be tempted away from the computer or the games console. Online distractions have sapped the will to compete, let alone the will to win.

It’s a gloom founded on evidence. According to the latest figures, the number of adults in England taking part at least once a week in many of the most popular sports—including football, rugby and golf—has shown a “statistically significant” fall over the last five years, despite lavish government spending. Britain has become a nation of spectators, happier to watch Andy Murray than to emulate him.