By Sunder Katwala
Manufique. That was the Daily Mail’s back-page headline, celebrating England’s rugby victory in Paris, as Tuilagi’s “sensational” try ignited a performance that “put the pride back” in the nation’s rugby.
Contrast that with the inside pages where chief sportswriter Martin Samuel railed against “a front row of Manu Tuilagi brick-outhouse types, imported almost to order” in a column billed as defending the paper’s campaign against “plastic Brits” from charges of hypocrisy.
The fierce polemics of the Mail’s sportswriters against some of the foreign-born athletes who have qualified to compete for Britain have demonstrated a comical inability to agree among themselves over whose British identity to challenge as fake.
Friday’s backpage declared that “It could have been Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis but, incredibly, our athletes are being led by a plastic Brit” to complain about the athletics team captaincy of American-born Tiffany Porter, who has had held dual US and British nationality since birth, but had declined to sing the national anthem when challenged by the paper’s reporter at a press conference on Thursday.
By Saturday morning, as Mail headlines hailed Ennis as a “True Brit” for her dignity in pentathlon defeat, columnist Des Kelly was now questioning Farah’s British credentials too: “that the Somalian-born runner who lives in Portland, Oregon, was on hand to refute the accusations that Porter was not “British” enough … proves the British do irony better than any other nation”, he wrote, in what seemed a dramatic, off-message extension of the net of plastic suspicion.
Even as Kelly argued an analogy between Farah and Porter, veteran Olympic reporter Neil Wilson was still contrasting those athletes. He would cheer for Porter’s foreign opponents, hoping to keep the “plastic Brit” off the podium, but was excited by Farah’s medal chances, because his arrival aged eight to join his British father had nothing to do with athletic opportunity.
Wilson had no problem with Yamile Aldama, who has been another of the primary “plastic” targets of chief sportswriter Martin Samuel.
Aldama spoke emotionally after winning gold on Saturday about the “plastic” jibes.
“Of course I am British. I have lived in this country for eleven years. My children are British. Sixty per cent of my friends are British. This is definitely my home”.
Aldama has had an extraordinary journey to British citizenship. Nobody doubts her eligibility for citizenship, but Samuel has written that “it doesn’t feel right” that she should represent a third nation at the Olympics.
Another of the first “plastic” targets has been Shara Proctor, a British citizen from the overseas dependent territory of Anguilla, which has no Olympic committee or team. The Mail’s Olympics correspondent Jonathan McAvoy declares he has no objection given it is a British territory. Samuel is softening here, arguing today for Britain to lobby for Anguila to get Olympic status, and “if that fails, we’ll see”. (His logic would imply that a Falklands’ athlete could be a “plastic Brit” too, since the island also has a Commonwealth Games team).
Why can’t the Mail agree on who it wants to declare to be un-British?
The Plastic Brits campaign conflates a legitimate issue of scrutiny of breaking or bending the immigration and citizenship rules to qualify an athlete, with making a range of subjective (and inconsistent) challenges to athletes who do qualify under the rules.
Samuel wrote that “the point of international eligibility is that every case is different”, in dismissing as “paper thin” charges of hypocrisy over the Daily Mail’s crusade for Zola Budd in 1984.
“I can pick up that phone and get her a passport in two days”, David English, the Daily Mail’s editor, told colleagues then. He exaggerated. It took him two weeks to bully a reluctant Cabinet into fast-tracking her into the Olympic team, with unhappy results.
This time, the Mail supports the government’s policy of no special treatment. So the Mail could celebrate with a no passports for plastic Brits headline to celebrate that weightlifters Yana Stadnik and Olga Butlkevych were refused citizenship despite five years residence.
The Mail has also argued for barring anyone for whom sporting opportunity was a motive to change nations. But Britain’s more open sporting tradition gave Basil d’Olivera and Allan Lamb the chance to compete at Test level, and stretches right back to the great Indian Ranjitsinjhi’s centuries for England in 1896, and the black Guinea-born Andrew Watson’s contribution to Scotland’s football victories of 1881.
Shara Proctor’s case directly resembles not just the Falklands’ sole Gold Medalist Louis Baillon, a member of the British hockey team in London 1908, but also that of the great sprinter McDonald Bailey, favourite of the Wembley crowds in 1948 and 100m bronze medallist in 1952, who accepted Britain’s invitation to run because it was not yet clear if Trinidad would send a team.
There is a legitimate argument about the need for governing bodies to concentrate on developing British talent, and not to push at the boundaries of the recruitment rules. That, though, could also be an argument for British-heritage basketball players from the NBA to play for us.
But where the Mail campaign breaks a core tradition of British citizenship by continuing the argument about who to recruit once they have donned British colours.
We can legitimately debate who to let in to join our community. But once an invitation is extended and accepted, we treat citizens as equals. We should do so with our athletes too.
The Mail seems to worry that modern Britain won’t recognise itself in its Olympic team. Des Kelly wrote on Saturday that “out of 550 members of Team GB, approximately 50 will be foreign-born athletes with dual nationality”. He thinks that makes a team meeting “will resemble Heathrow Airport’s terminal three during a baggage handlers strike”.
If Team GB is only nine-tenths British born, that team meeting will look like Britain itself.
12 per cent of people in Britain today are foreign-born. Because that percentage is twice as high in London, the Olympic host city, the team of Olympic volunteers will probably have more multinational roots than Team GB. As a newspaper that celebrates patriotism and integration, the Mail could celebrate that 70 per cent of those born abroad feel a strong sense of belonging to Britain, even slightly outscoring the 66 per cent of those born in this country, as the State of the Nation poll found.
They don’t think they are Plastic Brits, but instead fly their flags with pride.
So don’t be surprised if the crowds in the Olympic stadium next summer cheer for every athlete representing Team-GB.
This article was first published on the New Statesmen blog. View it here.
Read more of our articles on the Olympics and national identity:
Olympic games is not an Anglocentric affair
Humour is great part of British Olympics
The real Olympic opening ceremony?
Olympic bosses should not let mad branding rules hit Games fever
Fans at Olympics say good chance for “everyone to come together”
Olympic torch journey has touched many hearts
Or watch our Olympic interviews and videos:
British Future director Sunder Katwala at the very first Olympic event of 2012
British Future at the Olympics’ first day
British Future interviews crowd at first match of Olympic Games
British Future interview with football fans at Olympic Games match in Cardiff