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"Plastic Brits": are some Olympians more worthy of a cheer than others?

Screaming about "plastic Brits" may be a rare example of the <em>Mail</em> getting its own readers wrong.

Plastic Brit? Mo Farah after winning a race in Oregon earlier this month.
Plastic Brit? Mo Farah after winning a race in Oregon earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images

You could almost sense the weariness from UK athletics head coach Charles van Commenee last week when asked to comment on whether his athletes would know all the words to the national anthem in time for the London Olympics.

“They know the words, or they will,” said Van Commenee. “If they don't, somebody will make an issue of it.”

Van Commenee, himself from the Netherlands, has faced repeated sneers and whines over the authenticity of his squad ahead of the 2012 games. He is too polite to say out loud who that "somebody" is. But I’m here to remind you, if you hadn’t guessed already, that you need look no further than the usual suspects.

The Daily Mail has featured no fewer than 208 articles about "plastic Brits" in the run-up to the games. As Sunder Katwala wrote for the New Statesman earlier this year, it smacks of a strange attempt to decide who is and who isn’t British enough to be supported.

One typically klaxonic "plastic Brit" Mail article was published in March, after US-born Tiffany Porter was named captain of the women’s indoor athletics team, with the headline "NOW THE PLASTIC BRITS ARE TAKING OVER!" The appointment was described as "controversial", though no-one was quoted disagreeing with it.

There have been some comparisons to Zola Budd, the South African runner who speedily received a British passport in time to run in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. But Budd’s lightning conversion to Britishness was a different story: this was a runner who couldn’t compete for the land of their birth due to the sporting embargo on South Africa, so chose Britain instead, with a little help from some hastily-cut red tape.

There were no such qualms at the time of Porter’s appointment about the men’s captain, Somali-born Mo Farah. The long-distance runner has made the opposite journey across the Atlantic to Porter, and is now living in the United States with his family to prepare for the Olympics. Is he more or less "British" than Porter because of that? Or do they both have equal claims to wear the Team GB colours in London?

Farah arrived as a refugee from his war-ravaged birthplace in Britain aged eight, just knowing three phrases in English: “Excuse me”, “Where is the toilet?” and “C’mon then!” but has become of the best-loved stars of Team GB, winning gold and silver medals at the Daegu World Athletics Championships last year.

He’s just one of a huge number of foreign-born sports stars to have gained huge success in Britain. England’s cricket captain, Andrew Strauss, lived in South Africa until he came to Britain aged six – his predecessor, Kevin Pietersen, also came to Britain from South Africa, aged 17. The England cricket team has a long and often successful history of nurturing talent from across the globe and making them wear three lions on their shirts.

So what’s different about Porter and the other "plastic Brits"? Like Van Commenee, perhaps it’s just a case of some newspapers attempting to press the outrage buttons of their readers by questioning "immigrants coming over here, taking our Olympic places" just as they have previously screamed about Polish plumbers or Slovakian single mums.

National identity is a complex thing, though. Lancastrian Mark Lawrenson, a Republic of Ireland international, even questioned whether Lukas Podolski was an echt [real] German during football commentary the other night. When Lewis Hamilton won the Canadian Grand Prix at the weekend, he grabbed a Union Jack in celebration – and later added that seeing Grenadian flags (his grandfather came to Britain from the Caribbean island) had inspired him too.

Maybe it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, or where you’re going to, or what national anthem you know all the words to, but where you feel is home. "Plastic Brit" is a fairly odious term that aims to regard some Brits as being more worthy of a flag-wave or a cheer than others. Does that really represent how even Mail readers feel about Team GB? I suspect this could be one rare occasion where they have got their own readers wrong.