The Mail's odd campaign against "plastic Brit" Olympic athletes

Is everyone born abroad somehow not really British?

The Daily Mail's campaign against some of the Olympic athletes who will compete for Team GB - lambasting them as "plastic Brits" -  has always struggled for consistency. Partly, it was that the Daily Mail brought about the most egregious "passport of convenience" case with Zola Budd in 1984, by campaigning on her behalf. Mostly, it was a refusal to define the terms, so that different Mail writers attacked the British credentials of some athletes whom their colleagues praised.

I've written before about this, noting:

Twelve per cent of people in Britain today are foreign-born. Because that percentage is twice as high in London, the Olympic host city, the team of Olympic volunteers will probably have more multinational roots than Team GB. As a newspaper that celebrates patriotism and integration, the Mail could celebrate that 70 per cent of those born abroad feel a strong sense of belonging to Britain, even slightly outscoring those born in this country (66 per cent), as a State of the Nation poll found. They don't think they are Plastic Brits; instead, they fly their flags with pride.

One thing that was stressed for the defence was that this was not a pejorative attempt to attack all foreign-born athletes as "Plastic". But it transpires that the Mail has run a news story defining and counting the Plastic Brits: declaring there are 61 plastic Brits in Team GB, once the Mail defines a plastic Brit as "any citizen who was born abroad". It seems that both Mo Farah and Belgian-born Bradley Wiggins are "plastic" after all. And poor Prince Phillip is a Plastic Brit too.

I have written to Mail editor Paul Dacre suggesting that Friday's opening ceremony would be a good moment to adopt the tradition of an Olympic truce (see below).

Once the torch is lit in Stratford, it should be time to set aside the “plastic Brits” controversy for a fortnight, and to instead join the London crowds in their desire to get behind every Olympian invited to compete for Britain. If the Mail can bring itself to wave the Union Jack for all of the Olympic athletes chosen to compete for Britain, then they could count all of the medals that they win for Team GB in the medal table too.

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Dear Mr Dacre,

The next fortnight will see the country rally around Team GB in the hope that they will write another golden chapter in the proud history of British sport.

The Daily Mail’s sports pages have sparked a lively and controversial debate in challenging some of the Olympic athletes selected to compete for Britain as “plastic Brits”, where they are naturalised citizens, or have qualified for the Olympic team through parental connections to Britain. The Mail has also praised the pride and contribution of many foreign-born Brits, such as Mo Farah, who arrived here as an 11-year old from war-torn Somalia to become a world-beating athlete.

No Team GB member has been able to jump the citizenship and immigration queue, nor bend the rules of their sport, though this has also been a debate about how best to reflect the spirit of international sport.

This “plastic Brits” debate has sparked passion from all sides.  But might the opening ceremony provide an ideal moment to adopt the tradition of an Olympic truce?

Once the torch is lit in Stratford, it should be time to set aside the “plastic Brits” controversy for a fortnight, and to instead join the London crowds in their desire to get behind every Olympian invited to compete for Britain.

The London Olympics will be an experience that many of us hope we and our children will remember for a lifetime. So let’s wave the Union Jack for all of the Olympic athletes chosen to compete for Britain – and count all of the medals that they win for Team GB in the medal table too.

Best wishes,

Sunder Katwala

Director, British Future

Bradley Wiggins: born in Belgium. Photo: Getty Images

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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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