Alan White's Olympic diary: Modern, multicultural Britain took to the Olympic stage - and the world liked what it saw

A collective notion of Britishness is strong enough to accommodate cultural discrepancies without emphasising them.

Mo Farah was nine years old when he moved to Britain from Djibouti. He’d learned a couple of phrases: one was “Where is the toilet,” and another was “Come on,” which he’d not realised could be construed as a provocation. He said it to another boy, and there was a fight. It wasn’t to be the last time he’d get in trouble at school.

Two days ago he was asked by a journalist if he’d have preferred to run in the Games as a Somali. He responded indignantly: “Look mate, this is my country,” and added: "This is where I grew up; this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I'm proud. I'm very proud.”

When did Farah cross that arbitrary line in the sand and become one of us? From day one? After all, he had British citizenship at birth, because his father was born here. Or was it the moment he mastered the English language? Was it when he hooked up with Alan Watkinson, the teacher at Feltham Community School who nurtured his talent (Watkinson has admitted the Somali community within which Farah lived couldn’t “get involved” like he did)? Was it when he began to idolise the likes of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram? Was it when Paula Radcliffe began paying for his driving lessons?

Whatever we think, at some point, this country took a misfit, and turned him into a national hero. Sporting fans have long been pragmatic about these issues. Knowing there’ll never be a definitive answer, “If they’re good enough, they’re British enough,” has been the usual refrain. Two days ago the cricketer Kevin Pietersen (who moved here from South Africa aged 17) flayed his former homeland’s bowling around Headingley, to a rousing, tongue-in-cheek chorus of “He’s ours not yours”.

What sport fans have long known is that their pastime brings questions of nationality into too crude a relief for serious analysis. It’s now 22 years since Norman Tebbit suggested that those immigrants who support their native countries rather than Great Britain in sports might not be sufficiently loyal to their new country.  

The problem with such critiques is that they don’t acknowledge the multifariousness of human experience. The deployment of sport as a yardstick is a blunt instrument: is it really impossible to support Nigerian athletes while simultaneously signing up to all sorts of other signifiers of Britishness? It’s not just true of sport. The exact nature of the “multicultural crap” that enraged Aiden Burley MP was, apparently, the appearance of Dizzee Rascal. But he’s a grime artist (a British genre), whose lyrics blend, among other things, West Indian patois with East End rhyming slang. It’s British, but not as Burley knows it.

In recent years the rate of immigration to Britain has increased – as has the rate of migration around the world.  It’s hardly surprising this should spark concerns on a small island with a grandiose history, an uncertainty about its future standing in the world, and an obscenely subtle set of cultural nuances (look how they struggle with our linguistic tics!)

And the two main concerns about multiculturalism are very clear  - first that it allows any criticism of negative foreign practices to be decried as racist and thereby ignored, and second that it fails to posit a definitive set of British values to which the country can subscribe: rather than culture, we instead end up with different communities.

It was the former worry that was preoccupying David Cameron when he gave his "muscular liberalism" speech in Munich last year. Offering an answer goes rather beyond the purview of an Olympic diary. But still: only a few days ago the parents of Shafilea Ahmed were jailed for murdering their daughter. They were caught by British authorities and sentenced by British law. The checks and balances we apply to all our citizens must be robust enough to cover the evils that spring from any community. In this case they were: whether they are or not generally is a question for another day.

It’s on the second issue – British values - that we can turn back to sport. Britain isn’t like, say, America, which came box-fresh, its virtues ready-codified in its constitution. If there’s any official definition of Britishness, it’s been drawn up over years of compromise and elusion, a tendency that could almost be a national characteristic in its own right. When we don’t even know for sure what our value set is, is it any wonder we worry that it’s about to be subsumed by those of others?

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, come the athletes  Not only are they good; what really matters is the manner of their success: magnanimous in victory, gracious in defeat, hard-working, quick to support their team mates – these are all things we would previously have placed under the nebulous umbrella of British virtues. And yet they hail from all sorts of different cultural backgrounds.

How devastating a response this is to the Daily Mail’s take on the opening ceremony. Maybe, just maybe, this was the moment that Britishness stopped being a question of anything other than how one acts; the moment we finally acknowledged one could be brought up by Nigerian parents in Stratford, or a mixed race couple in Sheffield, or by Somalis in West London, that this happens all the time, and not only do people turn out alright – some of them end up being a role model for the next generation.

Maybe this was the moment we realised that the collective notion of Britishness – one to which most immigrants subscribe - is strong enough to accommodate cultural discrepancies without emphasising them. Maybe now we feel being tolerant while fighting intolerance is challenging, but not impossible.

I don’t use sport as a cultural correlative lightly. I’ve seen it done too often, and with too much misplaced optimism. The long-term legacy of these games – economic, sporting, cultural – is far from certain. Will the success of Ennis, Farah and others merely provide short-term succour to people from migrant backgrounds?

If change is coming, it won’t happen overnight. Cultural shifts are by their nature slow and insidious. But this question of Britishness; it was always a question of confidence. And this weekend Britain presented a quite unexpected face to the world: one not just multicultural, but unperturbed by that fact. Odd that a cruddy advertising slogan should end up carrying such emotional charge. This weekend, modern Britain took the stage, and the audience liked what it saw.

Odds and Ends

 

Seb Coe’s moment of the Olympics thus far. This is very moving.

A long read on Alberto Salazar, Mo Farah’s coach - well worth bookmarking (via @LDNcalling).

.What do the world’s fastest men eat before a race?

Some news you might have missed.

Woman falls over in the 100m hurdles - note the name.

For Stan Collymore, this picture defines the Olympic legacy.

Wonderful Olympics pics (via @susborne).

A shocking breach of BBC impartiality as Mo brings home gold.

Jessica Ennis’s performances, in three minutes (via @timlusher).

The Olympic Park, seven years ago.

A very pleasingly-aligned photo.

 

Mo Farah of Great Britain celebrates winning gold in the men's 10,000m. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era