9 Mar 2012

The hurdles faced by ‘New Brit’ athletes

At what stage is a Brit no longer considered “plastic”? Channel 4 News Sports Reporter Keme Nzerem describes the fuss over US-born Tiffany Porter’s selection for Team GB.

You may have noticed the brouhaha about “Plastic Brits” being picked to race under the Union Jack has been dusted off and given a bit of spit and polish. It is rather more spit than polish.

Team GB gave a press conference on Thursday, sporting a Dutch head coach, and four black British athletes. One of them has a Jamaican father. Another has two Jamaican parents and two cousins who play netball for England. Another is ethnically Somalian. The final athlete enjoys the citizenship of countries on three different continents, but was born to an English mother.

Which one is the most British? Which one is the least? Does it in fact matter?

National anthem

The first question from Her Majesty’s assembled media was addressed to the newly anointed team captain, triple national Tiffany Porter.

“Can you recite the first two verses of the national anthem?” she was asked. An awkward and embarrassing repartee at a press conference – nothing out of order there.

The reporter pressed on and asked again. Cue stunned silence from both his colleagues and the athletes we were there to interview.

If Porter was not a professional athlete – if she was not used to fending off the furious xenophobia that has greeted her from some quarters ever since she was chosen for the GB team – the flicker of shock that crossed her face might have been misconstrued.

For an instant Britain’s best female high hurdler might have even looked crestfallen. But she responded curtly with: “I don’t think that’s necessary”.

Do the journalist and publication have a legitimate bugbear? Well in a sense they do – the inference being that team GB are now funding an opportunist at the expense of a more deserving ‘real’ Brit. But the manner in which the subject was broached was provocative and contrived.

Porter has a Nigerian father and was born and raised in middle America. In fact, as a junior and until 2010 she raced under the Stars and Stripes. Porter’s mother however is British, and for the last two years she has competed for Great Britain.

Sneering murmurs

There have been sneering murmurs all along that she had only switched allegiance because she was not good enough to compete for the USA. Yet Porter has always said that she races for Great Britain because, well, she is British and that Team GB has the kind of training facilities and medical support that combined with her talent will deliver medals. And she is in fine fettle. She holds the 100m hurdles British record and over 60m hurdles is one of the fastest in the world. On current form she would make the grade for any team – whatever the nationality.

The pre-Olympic medal hunt has involved not just UK athletics but other sports scouring the world for would-be-Brits to bump up the podium contenders.

So it is only right and fair that UK athletics, and the sportsmen and women who benefit from their largesse, are asked to justify their team and funding selections.

UK Athletics’ famously sharp-tongued head coach held back on Thursday, telling the press conference publicly that he chose his captain because of her ability to inspire and lead, not her recollection of the national anthem.

Charles van Commenee was more forthright in private – letting on that in choosing Porter he wanted to make a statement. “The new Brits are as welcome and embraced as the rest of the team,” he told me.

Galvanising effect

And then there is the law of unintended consequences. It is hard to know what exactly the motivations were for attempting to upset team GB’s new skipper.

If it was to get her to mangle the national anthem so they could pour on more scorn, that clearly failed. If it was to make sure that she does in fact know the words, well that, I am told, is not necessary – for she apparently knows it back to front. And if it was to get her to turn her back on her teammates and return forever to her permanent home of Ann Arbor, Michigan that appears to have failed too.

Because the word from the British camp this morning is the unedifying scenes at Thursday’s press conference have galvanised the team in a most spectacular way.

Stormed to victory

The first morning session of the World Indoor Athletics Championships in Istanbul started well with the majority of British athletes qualifying for the next round of their event. Also starting well was Jess Ennis who stormed to victory in the 60m hurdles, the first event in her defence of the pentathlon world title.

Ennis was of course on stage at the press conference with her captain on Thursday afternoon. Later that evening I am told Porter gave a rousing speech, with her colleagues furious her commitment to the team was questioned with such sneer.

Mo Farah told me the way Porter was belittled was “unacceptable”. And his view might well be relevant for the Somali-born British world champion grew up in Djibouti, only arriving in Blighty as a boy. Is he British? Or a Johnny-come-lately too just like his captain? At what stage exactly in one’s metamorphosis from foreigner to boy-next-door, is a Brit no longer considered ‘plastic’?


I for one do not know. Like Ms Porter I have a Nigerian father. In direct contrast with her I grew up in the UK, to an American mother. The main thing we have in common (for it is certainly not athletic ability) is that we both claim allegiance to all three countries.

What is the test of one’s belonging? Because I could not tell you the words to the “Star Spangled Banner”. I could not tell you the words to “God Save the Queen”. I could not tell you the words to “Arise, O Compatriots.”

Does this make me any less proud when one of my countryfolk wins a gold medal? Of course it does not. And were I a good enough athlete to represent any one of my three countries I would jump over any height of hurdle to say yes.