Fiona May: 'It's the reality of life, so just get on with it'

She knows what it's like to jump ship and says we should accept plastic Brits' leap of faith

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The Independent Online

By the time Shara Proctor was in the interview area at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham the weekend before last, being asked what she felt about the label "plastic Brit", Fiona May had already received news via Twitter that the Anguillan-born-and-raised long jumper had broken the 28-year-old British indoor long jump record.

"Good for her," May said, two weeks on. "And good for Britain. It's about time somebody broke into new territory for women's long-jumping in Britain."

Proctor is long-jumping for Britain because Anguilla happens to be a British overseas territory. She cannot represent her homeland at the Olympics because the Caribbean island does not have an Olympic Committee. Four and a half months before a home-from-home Games, the 23-year-old will wear a red, white and blue vest at the World Indoor Championships, which run from next Friday to Sunday at the Atakoy Athletics Arena in Istanbul.

Ranked fifth in the world courtesy of her 6.80m leap in Birmingham, Proctor will indeed break into new territory if she manages to get on the podium. No Briton has ever won a medal in the women's long jump at the World Indoors.

May won the gold in Paris in 1997 but she was wearing the blue vest of the Italian track and field azzurri. Like Proctor – and triple jumper Yamile Aldama and hurdler Tiffany Porter, other foreign recruits capable of boosting the British medal tally in Istanbul and then London – she knows what it is like to take a leap of faith across international boundaries.

In 1988, May was the only British winner at the inaugural World Junior Championships in Canada. She was also in the British Olympic team in Seoul that summer, finishing sixth in the long jump final aged 18.

She was born in Slough, raised in Derby and went to university in Leeds, but in 1994 she married the Italian pole vaulter Gianni Iapichino and moved to Florence. A leaping Lucy Honeychurch, you could say.

May switched nationality and won gold for Italy at the 1995 and 2001 World Championships. She also won Olympic silvers in 1996 and 2000. She encountered none of the xenophobia that has been directed at Proctor, Aldama, Porter and the 400m runners Shana Cox and Michael Bingham – both likely to be podium contenders as relay runners in Istanbul.

The Italian public and media regarded May as not so much plastic as fantastic. "Yes they did," she said, speaking from the home she shares with her husband and two daughters, Larissa and Anastasia, in the Tuscan countryside at Mugello. "They still do. If I go in any part of the world, even the Italians there all know me and consider me Italian. They know I was British and competed for Great Britain, but to them I'm Italian.

"I wish it was the same for Shara in Britain. I wish people would leave her alone. Anguilla hasn't got a National Olympic Committee and it's a British territory, so I don't see what people have got to complain about. It's the reality of life, so just get on with it. It gives her an opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games and good luck to her. I'm glad to see her legs are going out and doing the talking."

At 42, May has been retired from long jumping for seven years now. She has remained a high-profile figure in her adopted homeland, winning the Italian version of Dancing with the Stars and playing the lead role in a TV drama series called Butta la Luna. "I played the part of a Nigerian who came over to Italy and went through all the bad stuff – racism and everything."

She will also be on TV at London 2012, working as a commentator for Sky Sports Italia, and she has no regrets about her change of allegiance. "All I can say is I'm proud of my own achievements," she said. "I worked my ass off to win all of my medals."

Plastic fantastic

Tiffany Porter, 60m hurdles From Ypsilanti, Michigan. Former US junior. GB passport-holder since birth – her mother is from London.

Yamile Aldama, triple jump Cuban-born. Married a Scot and moved to London in 2001 but failed to gain GB passport in time for 2004 Olympics.

Shara Proctor, long jump From Anguilla, which has no Olympic team, but as a British overseas territory she has had a GB passport since birth.

Shana Cox, 400m, 4 x 400m relay From Long Island, New York. Dual nationality since birth – both parents are from London.

Michael Bingham, 4 x 400m relay From North Carolina. Former US junior decathlete. Dual nationality since birth – his father is British.