9 March 2012

Who are you calling a “Plastic” Brit?

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So, just who is a “Plastic Brit”?  That question is provoked by the Daily Mail’s sustained campaign against some of the athletes who will be competing for Britain in the Olympic Games this summer.

The newspaper today rails against the choice of Tiffany Porter as athletics captain. It also offers a handy montage of its previous headlines against “Plastic Brits”, such as “Team GB have ended up with a bunch of foreign wrestlers. I wish they would all SHOVE OFF!”

I would agree with the Mail that Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis would have been better choices of team captain (though Farah is not resident in Britain either). But “Plastic Brits” strikes me as an unfortunate and ugly phrase with which to selectively question the allegiance and legitimacy of British citizens who have qualified to compete for our country, given that the newspaper refuses to offer any clear criteria to determine which foreign-born athletes they will celebrate as a British sporting champion, and which they will lambast as plastic “cheat”.

Being a “Plastic Brit” clearly isn’t about race. Britain has moved on in recent decades from seriously debating the question of whether those born here with Asian or Afro-Caribbean parents, could ever be truly British. The Mail has rightly been much praised for its campaign to convict Stephen Lawrence’s murderers, which changed legal and social history, and the newspaper too. All of our newspapers now campaign vigorously against racism on the football terraces or the football field. One or two of the Mail’s Plastic Brit headlines – ” – do contain an unfortunate echo of the “send them back” slogans which were used with menace in the streets too recently in living memory for them to have become an easy subject of humourous headlines.

So, the “Plastic Brit” charge is against those who seek to compete under “a flag of convenience”. The very first example that almost anybody would think of is Zola Budd. The obvious irony is that the South African could never have run for Britain without a Daily Mail campaign to get the government to fast-track her into the British Olympic theme.

The Mail’s great sportswriter Ian Woolridge told the story some years later:

 ‘Brilliant’, cried David English, our editor at the time. Because of the British family connection she shall run for us. By us he meant the Daily Mail first and Britain second. He was a dynamic boss with a strict sense of priorities. This was yet another fertile idea but both Neil Wilson, our athletics correspondent and I, tried to dissuade her … ‘Nonsense’, said David, ‘I can pick up this phone and get her a British passport in two days. He did. Within a week, Zola was in Britain but the large sum involved did not bring her happiness.”

With Mail executives lodging the passport application, Budd was greeted by Daily Express headlines blaring “Zola Go Home” as the 19 year old became a pawn in various media and political battles, before the infamous collision with Mary Decker-Slaney at the Los Angeles Games.

Martin Samuel regards the Budd case as a debacle. (It was, perhaps cruelly, voted by the British public as one of their top 100 great sporting moments). But he can not see how this historic case can have any relevance to the Mail’s sports pages stridently campaigning in the opposite direction almost two decades later, largely because he personally has only been with the newspaper two years.  Nor has he revealed what the newspaper’s current editor, Paul Dacre, who was the paper’s news editor during that 1984 campaign, now thinks of the pro-immigration Budd campaign, or the current campaign to keep more athletes out of the British team.

But the Budd case is relevant in terms of the central question: who is, and is not, a plastic Brit? If the Mail in 1984 could campaign vociferously for her to run for Britain, and the Mail today would lambast her as the most egregious of the “plastic Brits” (on its sports pages at least) then this does raise an obvious question. What are the criteria? And who decides?

The Mail has, in 2012, secured a pledge from the government not to fast-track passports just for those who want to compete in the Games. (This might be a relief for the government, as being pressed to give precisely the opposite pledge to the Daily Mail caused some difficulty in Cabinet in 1984).

This means that the Mail could celebrate a victory in its campaign last weekend, managing to keep both of the female wrestlers, Yana Stadnik and Olga Butkevych, it has been targetting out of the British team, despite five year’s residence.

“Sources say that although Stadnik and Butkevych have lived in the country for five years as required, they will not be granted ‘indefinite leave to remain’ – a condition of citizenship that demands ‘sufficient knowledge of the English language and life in the United Kingdom’ – for another year”.

Stadnink has married a British-born wrestler too, which the Mail clearly regards with suspicion. This shows that the immigration and settlement rules are getting tougher. Even many of those who have lived here five years under the points-based system are going to lose the right to apply for settlement.

There will be no new Zola Budds under the current rules. So could it now be time for the Daily Mail to support any qualified British citizen, who meets the government’s stricter criteria, who wants to compete for us, and who the selectors want to pick?

The plastic campaign goes rather further than that, and is targetting a range of other athletes who have British citizenship, though more care is now being taken with the argument than when an earlier challenge to Stadnik and Butkevych included a reference to their “beautiful British names, as Alan Murray’s pub landlord might say”.

After the campaign was criticised, the Mail a few weeks later responded with a declaration in favour of Ruslan Panteleymonov, declaring there was nothing plastic about “Brit Ruslan”, and arguing it was a “myth” and misunderstanding that this was a campaign against foreign-born athletes (or indeed those without “beautiful British names”).

Panteleymonov came to Britain in 2000 and was granted citizenship in 2008, so is exonerated from suspicion because he did not know Britain would be hosting the Games.

Yet the Cuban-born athlete Yamile Aldama is lambasted as “plastic”, despite living in London since 2001, when she married her British husband. There is no doubt about her right to a passport. Yet Samuel rails against Team GB picking the best British citizen in the event, because she represented Sudan in the 2004 Games, during the period before she would be eligible for Britain. “”It has taken the best part of a decade for her to embrace Great Britain .. it does not feel right to have an athlete rallying beneath the Union Flag yet on her third country in three Olympic Games”.

Tiffany Porter has held a British passport since birth, because her mother is British, and her father Nigerian. Martin Samuel in the Mail declares her plastic: “If she felt so British, why did she wait until she was 23 to use her dual nationality”. (And so this British since birth case turns out to be a worse case than Aldama “who at least lived in London for the best part of a decade”, which might perhaps open up the issue to appeal. Indeed, another Mail writer Neil Wilson, who says he won’t be supporting plastic Brits, but is happy to cheer for Aldama as a proper, non-plastic Brit).

In declaring the Budd case irrelevant, Samuel wrote that “the point with international eligibility is that every case is unique”.  This does finally create one common  thread between 1984 and 2012: the certainty of one newspaper that it can decide who should be accepted as British.

If we knew our history …

The strange thing is that the Mail’s journalism, beneath the strident headlines on whichever side of the argument, does recognise the complexity at the margins. Samuel writes that “most understand that, in the modern world, the concepts of citizenship are shifting, and can equate to more than a birth certificate or a passport. We appreciate that an athlete can be born in one country, but be the product, or a citizen, of another. Yet we can also spot an old-fashioned scam”.

This is important and valuable in that it clearly and explicitly rejects any hardline interpretation or extremist misuse of the newspaper’s Plastic Brits campaign.

Jack Charlton’s Ireland football team were for a long time seen as the archetypal case of the pragmatists with their use of the grandparents’ rule. Some condemned them as mercenaries, with little feel for the Irish shirt or flag. (They went beyond the letter of the rules too, when Tony Cascarino’s claim to an Irish grandparent turned out to be a mistake). But there was more emotional resonance to why that team was embraced by the Ireland of the 1990s. That motley, mongrel team captured an important story about Irish history, that it had long been a nation of emigration, often of talent lost, but one emerging with a new confidence. Jack Charlton’s Ireland symbolized a changing, European country, moving on from a narrower idea of Ireland, dominated by the Catholic Church, and resistant to external, and especially English, influence which had long held sway. The Irish diaspora in New York  on the famous night that the Irish beat Italy at USA ’94, and many of us who can stake a small claim to be just a little bit Irish – my mother was born in Cork – could perhaps feel some connection to that diaspora team.

The “Plastic Brits” campaign may have some valid points about some governing bodies attempts to push the line – but it could also be rejected as misunderstanding a distinctively British sporting history, which has been more open to international influence than any other national sporting culture, reflecting Britain’s colonial and post-colonial history.

How many people know that the very first Brit to compete in the 1896 Olympics was born in India, Charles Gmelin, the son of a Christian missionary, who took bronze in the 400 metres?

That same year, the great Indian Ranjitsinjhi was the hero of the Ashes series. The Times had declared against picking the Indian Maharajah on what now look rather like ‘plastic Brit’ grounds:  “There was some feeling about K. S. Ranjitsinhji’s absence, but although the Indian Prince has learnt all his cricket in England he could scarcely, if the title of the match were to be adhered to, have been included in the English eleven” – but the more popular papers campaigned to let him play. The MCC decided to ask the Australians if it would be considered sporting to pick him. They were happy for him to be included.  More than a dozen previous England cricket captains, like the current incumbent Andrew Strauss, were born abroad, including the South African born Allan Lamb.

The great sprinter McDonald Bailey, joint world record holder with Jesse Owens, and a British bronze medallist in 1952, would probably have failed Samuel’s Plastic Brits test. He would have preferred to have run for Trinidad, but they were too late in deciding whether or not to send a team to the London Games, so he had accepted the invitation to run for the hosts by the time they decided. Bailey made enormous contributions to British sport and society, and should be remembered more than he is as a British sporting great.

More recently, those like Greg Rusedski and Kevin Pietersen whose new allegiance has been treated with suspicion, have often won acceptance. Ultimately, sports fans, like players, have to treat the referee’s decision as final. For all of his swashbuckling brilliance, Kevin Pietersen’s motives for playing for England, including opposition to the South African positive action programme, do not strike me personally as quite as noble as those of Basil d’Olivera. Still, no England cricket fan has the option of trying to keep score counting only the runs of those foreign-born players one would have personally chosen to select.


An Olympic truce?

The Plastic Brits scoreboard shows that the Daily Mail has won some and lost some. It got Zola Budd picked for Britain, with unhappy results. It has helped to keep out two of the wrestling team, but failed with several other competitors who have secured British citizenship within the rules.

The newspaper has been a little sporadic in its concerns. It has railed unsuccessfully against the Rugby Football Union’s pragmatic views about seeking new players for the England  team. But there didn’t seem to be any “they come over here and score our runs” campaign against Jonathan Trott or Kevin Pietersen during the Ashes-winning campaigns against Australia. (Indeed, Samuels accepts  that “maybe the cynics are right and the popularity of England’s cricketers shows that nobody cares where the players came from”). Perhaps that sets a helpful precedent for giving up once the case has been lost.

So what happens next? Here, I would make a modest, bridge-building proposal which can bring together those who might have different instincts at the margins about how often we should let “them” become “us”.

The Daily Mail, having made its views clear during the selection process, should promise to retire its campaign before the Games begin.

That would enable it to get on the same side as the capacity crowds, waving their flags for everybody who is competing for Britain, while also being thrilled at the achievements of the great athletes from around the world.

Otherwise, if it is still railing against Plastic Brits, it should, to be consistent, have to produce its own, amended medals tables, so as to exclude those medals won by athletes whose allegiance the newspaper does not want to accept.

But it would surely be rude and uncivic to continue the Plastic Brit polemics during the Games itself. That would undermine Britain’s reputation as a welcoming nation too. After all, these Olympics are being held in London, rather than Paris, because of the story which London 2012 told about a city which celebrates its cosmopolitan and global links.

Personally, I am going to cheer for all of the British athletes who we have invited to compete for our teams. Once the Games begin, let’s hope we can persuade the Daily Mail to wave its Union Jack for them all too.


Read more of our articles on the Olympics and national identity:

Olympic games is not an Anglocentric affair

Our Island Story

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



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