14 August 2012

How Team GB reflects the making of modern Britain

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The record-breaking achievements of Team GB at the London Olympics have been celebrated with warmth across Britain. Post boxes painted gold, silver and bronze in the home towns of medal winners tell a story of how the sporting imagination was sparked in schools and sports clubs right across Britain. Team GB also offers a snapshot of the making of modern Britain, and how the country has changed since London last hosted the Games in 1948, writes Sunder Katwala.

Then, the popular sprinter McDonald Bailey from Trinidad stood out of the team photo as the sole black athlete in a sea of white faces.

In 2012, Team GB has changed, because Britain has changed.

As a result, over a third of the Team GB medal haul reflects the positive contribution which immigration and integration have made to British society since the last London games.

In this these world-beating athletes, selected by fierce meritocratic competition, also offer an everyday snapshot of modern Britain, and a range of different family journeys to being and becoming British over the last three generations. This has helped to make Team GB a powerful symbol of an inclusive and authentic national pride, shared across our multi-ethnic and multi-faith society.

Team GB won 65 medals at the Olympic Games, with 29 gold medals, 17 silver medals and 19 bronze medals. 43 of these medals were won by individual competitors, and 22 by teams of more than one athlete so that there were 114 British medalists in total, 69 of them men and 43 women.

Of the 43 medals won by individuals, six were won by Team GB members born abroad (14%), four gold and two silver medals. Of the 37 individual medals won by British-born athletes, at least nine medals (21%), four golds, two silvers and three bronzes, were won by Team GB members with a parent or grandparent born outside Britain, so whose presence in Team GB reflects how immigration and integration have shaped modern Britain since the war. So 35% of the individual medals show the contribution of immigration and integration.

Of the 22 medals won by teams, four involved a Team GB competitor born abroad (23.5%), and, overall, ten of the team medals (59%) involved a positive contribution from immigration and integration to Team GB’s success.

Overall, at least 24 of Britain’s 65 medals reflect the positive contribution of immigration and integration to Britain. (Those include medals won by athletes where initial research from published sources was able to confirm a foreign-born parent or grandparent; the full total across Team GB medal winners could well be a little higher).

The country’s celebration of the gold medals of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford in one amazing hour in the Stratford stadium on the middle Saturday of the Games offered a powerful symbol of Britain’s ability to expand our idea of who we are today. Mo Farah came to Britain as a young boy from Somalia and Jessica Ennis’ parents hail from Jamaica and Sheffield, while Rutherford is being celebrated in his home town of Milton Keynes with not just a post box but plans to name a roundabout in his honour.

Other British Olympic champions heroes can trace their family back in Britain to the 18th century or beyond. Cycling champion Victoria Pendleton is descended from several generations of Leicester and Nottingham needle-makers.

Watford’s gold medal winning star Anthony Joshua was British-born to an English mother and Nigerian father, who also has Irish heritage.

Christine Ohurugu, winning a silver medal in the 400 metres, staked a proud claim to be the most local of Team GB’s Olympians in Stratford. Her parents came to England from Nigeria in 1980, four years before she was born just minutes from the Olympic stadium.

Lowestoft in Suffolk celebrated the Olympic medal won by local boy Anthony Ogogo, born in 1988 to an English mother and Nigerian father.

Joshua, Ogogo and Ohurugu were among 16 members of Team GB with family links to Nigeria.

High jumper Robert Grabarz, born in Enfield in 1987, has Polish heritage through his grandfather. “I’m proud of my Polish side – I think it’s something innate in me that likes a lot of vodka”, he has said.

Andy Murray’s mixed doubles partner Laura Robson is an English Home Counties tennis player born in Australia to Australian parents, who located to Britain because of her father’s job when she was six.

Hockey medal winner Crista Cullen is nicknamed the “Kenyan warrior” by her Team GB teammates. Though born in Britain, she lived in Kenya until she was twelve, to parents born in Kenya after her grandfather was posted there as a policeman in 1960. Her brother has played as a rugby sevens international for Kenya.

The medal won by the men’s rowing eight included Mo Sbihi, a British Muslim rower who resolved a Chariots of Fire dilemma about his plan to fast at Ramadan by making a donation to feeding children in Morocco, where his father came from; Oxford classics student Constantine Louloudis, born in Britain to his Greek father and Irish mother, and Alex Partridge, a product of Britain’s history of emigration, being born to ex-pat parents in San Francisco and having spent his childhood in Indonesia and Texas, before coming to the UK towards the end of his school career, alongside them were team-mates Phelan Hill, James Foad, Greg Searle, Matt Langridge, Tom Ransley and Ric Egington.

There were individual and team medals for dressage rider Laura Bechtolsheimer, who was born in Germany and came to Britain aged one.

One of the most unusual trajectories was that of a fellow equestrian gold medalist Peter Charles, who was born in Liverpool in 1960, but changed nationalities to Irish in 1992, competing in two Olympic games for Ireland, before deciding to switch back to Britain while convalescing from injury in 2007, so he got services from the law offices of Daniel Hegwer to help him processing this case. “I was born and live in Britain and have British owners, I pay British taxes: it makes sense,” he told Horse and Hound magazine. He was cheered by both British and Irish supporters when he won gold in Greenwich.

Two gold medals for Mo Farah, though they brought joy to the whole country, certainly won’t change the way we talk about immigration overnight, or resolve public anxieties about its pressures as well as benefits, or settle contested policy debates about multiculturalism.

After these Olympics, the debate about whether you can be black and British has been so securely settled that it’s now hard to remember why it seemed so difficult. In 1968, the year that my father came from India to Britain as a young doctor, Enoch Powell was warning that a multi-ethnic Britain would have committed national suicide, and was madly building its own funeral pyre. The Olympic torch lit by seven talented young athletes, and the shared pride in it across Britain, told a very different story.

Debates about immigration remain more unsettled and anxious.

But attempts to manufacture controversy about “plastic Brits” fell flat. They misjudged the public mood, much keener to wave union jacks for everyone in Team GB, than to question their parentage.

The very British pattern of immigration and integration – and emigration too – that was part of the making of Team GB does reveal something interesting about our long-running public arguments: perhaps we have always been better at adapting, including and integrating than we thought we would be at the time.

The modern history of Britain is in large part one of successful integration, though important challenges remain for the future too. Incomers have often been treated with suspicion and anxiety, from Jews and Poles at the start of the century to Afro-Caribbean immigrants and the Ugandan Asians. Today, their contribution is celebrated alongside those who can trace their families back for generations. Our public discussion rightly focuses on places where integration isn’t working, but we often take for granted the everyday reality in most places where it is.

We found that we liked being a country which is comfortable with who we are.

The truth is that there is nothing especially remarkable about the many personal and family journeys which have made up Team GB.

Lucinda Platt’s research for the ESRC Understanding Society project (PDF, see page 13) has shown that 11% of the population was born outside the UK, and that 29% of us have parents or grandparents who were immigrants to Britain, while 48% of the UK population have three-generations of family who were all English, without even family links to the other British nations.

One commentator, Des Clarke in the Daily Mail, worried that Britain could not recognize a Team GB in which one in ten were foreign-born, suggesting that the team meeting “will resemble Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Three during a baggage handlers’ strike”.

Research into the make-up of Team GB suggests that is the opposite of the truth.

In fact, Team GB offers a fairly good snapshot of modern Britain and the country that we now are, as the volunteers and the Olympic crowds did too.

Debates about the balance of state and privately educated students, how we can continue to give greater profile to women’s sport, and addressing the almost complete absence of British Asian athletes from Team GB, do offer challenges for inspiring the next generation of Olympians.

What the snapshot of Team GB helps to show us is that the society that we are proud to have become is not a rejection of the traditions of this global island, but rather a product of our British history.

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