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.
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