“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.

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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