For the first time since 1948, the Summer Games return to London, a heralded coup for the British Olympic Committee and the city of London. Much like its previous stint in 1948, the city and nation face stiff budgeting restrictions placed on the games due to the financial meltdown of the past four years similar to the recovery from the Second World War, but London still hopes to put on the greatest athletic showcase in the world. Despite this similarity, Great Britain has undergone significant changes both in its world prestige and its demographic makeup.
In 1948 the British Empire spanned the world and was recovering from the rigors of being bombed for nearly six years and holding out against the tide of fascism. The width and breadth of its control went from the heart of central Africa, the bustling cities of India and the sands of the Middle East. Since that time Britain lost this empire through either willing handovers (ex. Ghana) or through loss in conflict (ex. Israel).
With the loss of its territories and its international preeminence being ceded to the U.S. and USSR, Great Britain remade itself in to a Commonwealth that would attempt to respect its former colonies as near equals and brothers in the international community. This led to new societal norms as well with this new outlook which included the acceptance of many new immigrants under Commonwealth agreements. Once a society of mass exodus that reached nearly every shore on every continent, Great Britain became a land of destination for its former colonial peoples.
With this in mind we arrive at a contentious situation in which the current British Olympic team includes about 50 dual citizenship and foreign-born competitors. Unlike the founding principles of the United States where immigrants are considered to be the basis of society, British society has less history and more guardedness about the status of its immigrant populations.
Recently this came to a head as American-born hurdler Tiffany Porter was named captain of the British World Indoor Championship team. After her silver medal performance in the 60 meter hurdles, she was questioned by a reporter if she could recite the lyrics to “God Save the Queen.” To say the least this stoked the tinders of a fire which has been waiting to ignite.
Termed “Plastic Brits” by their opponents, the naturalized individuals of the team makeup some its premier stars but at the same time face scrutiny for not being born on the British islands. Many question whether the Olympic committee is out hunting for talent among other nations and if the athletes are seeking a trip to the Games through a technicality of parentage. The team includes includes Porter, Mo Farah (Somalia) and jumper Yamile Aldama (Cuba) along with a Dutch-born head coach Charles Van Commenee, a distinctively multinational group but all committed to representing the British nation admirably regardless of their nation of origin.
In response to this backlash against the addition of foreign born athletes, British-born teammates and superstars Paula Radcliffe and Jessica Ennis have come out in strong statements of support for the so-called “Plastic Brits.” In Radcliffe’s case she was instrumental in the development of distance favorite Farah whom she mentored as young athlete coming into his own. However, some, including such as hurdler Dai Greene, argue that it can displace other athletes who were working equally hard and were bounced in favor of the newly minted citizens.
This fine line of what defines a true British citizen is a symptom of an unclear history of immigration laws and culture which have produced a xenophobic yet thoughtful question as to the legitimacy of adding athletes from other countries to bolster their Olympic prestige and medal counts. Though not a new issue in world athletics, with such countries like the tiny Arab emirates giving citizenship to star African runners, the issue with British athletes is from a world economic, political and athletic power. This will not be a simple question to answer with the face of nationality being in a state of transition and the opportunity of fine competitors seeking to apply their trade at the peak of events.
The hope that we may take from this is the fact that teammates have come out in defense of each other and not shirked from comradeship despite having to face intense media pressure. Being able to sing your nation’s anthem may be a hallmark of patriotism or an increasingly archaic gesture. Whichever it maybe, the status of these “plastic” citizens maybe transformed if they perform and bring victory for which there are few better cures to criticism. At a point where the outside world begins to intrude upon the world of athletics, societies must begin to see the societal implications of their teams and if they are reflective of their values and aspirations.