“Plastic Brits” — and the Mail’s struggle to decide who isn’t British

If Team GB is only nine-tenths British-born, that team meeting will look like Britain itself.

Manufique! That was the Daily Mail's back-page headline celebrating England's rugby victory in Paris, as Tuilagi's "sensational" try ignited a performance that "put the pride back" in the nation's rugby.

Contrast that with the inside pages, where the paper's chief sportswriter, Martin Samuel, railed against "a front row of Manu Tuilagi brick-outhouse types, imported almost to order", in a column billed as defending the paper's campaign against "plastic Brits" from charges of hypocrisy.

The fierce polemics of the Mail's sportswriters against some of the foreign-born athletes who have qualified to compete for Britain have demonstrated a comical inability to agree among themselves over whose British identity to challenge as fake.

Friday's back page declared that "It could have been Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis but, incredibly, our athletes are being led by a plastic Brit" to complain about the athletics team captaincy of Tiffany Porter, an American-born runner who has had held dual US and British nationality since birth, but had declined to sing the national anthem when challenged by the paper's reporter at a press conference on Thursday.

By Saturday morning, as Mail headlines hailed Ennis as a "True Brit" for her dignity in pentathlon defeat, the columnist Des Kelly was questioning Farah's British credentials, too: "That the Somalian-born runner who lives in Portland, Oregon, was on hand to refute the accusations that Porter was not 'British' enough . . . proves the British do irony better than any other nation," he wrote, in what seemed a dramatic, off-message extension of the net of plastic suspicion.

Even as Kelly argued an analogy between Farah and Porter, the veteran Olympic reporter Neil Wilson was still contrasting those athletes. He would cheer for Porter's foreign opponents, hoping to keep the "plastic Brit" off the podium, but was excited by Farah's medal chances, because his arrival in the UK aged eight to join his British father had nothing to do with athletic opportunity.

What's the story?

Wilson had no problem with Yamilé Aldama, who has been another of the primary "plastic" targets of Martin Samuel.

Aldama spoke emotionally after winning gold on Saturday about the "plastic" gibes. "Of course I am British. I have lived in this country for 11 years. My children are British. Sixty per cent of my friends are British. This is definitely my home."

Aldama has had an extraordinary journey to British citizenship. Nobody doubts her eligibility for citizenship, but Samuel has written that "it doesn't feel right" that she should represent a third nation at the Olympics.

Another of the first "plastic" targets has been Shara Proctor, a British citizen from the overseas dependent territory of Anguilla, which has no Olympic committee or team. The Mail's Olympics correspondent Jonathan McAvoy declares he has no objection, given that Anguilla is a British territory. Samuel is softening here, arguing today for Britain to lobby for Anguila to get Olympic status, and "if that fails, we'll see". (His logic would imply that a Falklands athlete could be a "plastic Brit", too, because the island also has a Commonwealth Games team.)

Why can't the Mail agree on who it wants to declare to be un-British?

The Plastic Brits campaign conflates a legitimate issue of scrutiny of breaking or bending the immigration and citizenship rules to qualify an athlete with making a range of subjective (and inconsistent) challenges to athletes who do qualify under the rules.

Samuel wrote that "the point of international eligibility is that every case is different", dismissing as "paper-thin" the charges of hypocrisy over the Daily Mail's crusade for Zola Budd in 1984.

"I can pick up this phone and get her a passport in two days," David English, the Daily Mail's editor, told colleagues then. He exaggerated. It took him two weeks to bully a reluctant cabinet into fast-tracking Budd into the Olympic team, with unhappy results.

This time, the Mail supports the government's policy of no special treatment. So it could celebrate with a "No passports for plastic Brits" headline to celebrate that the Ukrainian-born weightlifters Yana Stadnik and Olga Butlkevych were refused citizenship despite having lived in Britain for five years.

The Mail has also argued in favour of barring anyone for whom sporting opportunity was a motive to change nations. But Britain's more open sporting tradition gave Basil D'Oliveira and Allan Lamb the chance to compete at Test level, and stretches right back to the great Indian Ranjitsinhji's centuries for England in 1896 and the contribution to Scotland's football victories of 1881 by black, Guinean-born Andrew Watson.

Recruitment bottlenecks

Shara Proctor's case directly resembles not just the Falklands' sole gold medallist, Louis Baillon, a member of the British hockey team for London 1908, but also that of the great sprinter McDonald Bailey, favourite of the Wembley crowds in 1948 and 100m bronze medallist in 1952, who accepted Britain's invitation to run because it was not yet clear if Trinidad would send a team.

There is a legitimate argument about the need for governing bodies to concentrate on developing British talent and not to push at the boundaries of the recruitment rules. That, however, could also be an argument for British-heritage basketball players from the NBA to play for us.

But where the Mail campaign breaks a core tradition of British citizenship is by continuing the argument about whom to recruit after the people have donned British colours.

We can legitimately debate whom to let in to join our community. But once an invitation is extended and accepted, we treat citizens as equals. We should do so with our athletes, too.

The Mail seems to worry that modern Britain won't recognise itself in its Olympic team. Des Kelly wrote on Saturday that, "out of 550 members of Team GB, approximately 50 will be foreign-born athletes with dual nationality". He believes this means that a team meeting "will resemble Heathrow Airport's Terminal Three during a baggage handlers' strike".

If Team GB is only nine-tenths British-born, that team meeting will look like Britain itself.

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.

So, don't be surprised if the crowds at the Olympic stadium next summer cheer for every athlete representing Team GB.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future.

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

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism