Tiffany Porter: Set to silence critics by being plastic fantastic
The rising star of women's hurdling tells Simon Turnbull why the 'misinformed' tag won't hinder her progress
Thursday 04 August 2011
Britain's fastest ever female 100m hurdler is sitting opposite the Olympic Stadium – in the function suite of H Forman & Son, smoked salmon purveyors – pondering the possibility of making a name for herself as a big fish in the London 2012 bowl just 12 months from now. The question is: which name exactly?
She was Tiffany Ofili when she made her British debut at the European Indoor Championships in Paris in March, winning a silver medal and breaking Jessica Ennis' UK indoor 60m hurdles record. Following her wedding to fellow hurdler Jeff Porter, she was Tiffany Ofili-Porter when she broke Angie Thorp's 15-year-old British record for the 100m hurdles in Hengelo in May, clocking 12.77sec, and when she improved it to 12.60sec in Monaco last month.
At the World Championship Trials in Birmingham last weekend, however, she appeared on the results sheet as Tiffany Porter. "Next year I was planning on dropping the Ofili altogether," she says. "If we do it a couple of months early, that's fine. Tiffany Porter it is."
By all accounts, the debate about the naming of the five Olympic Park neighbourhoods was similarly complicated. Plastic Fantastic was one of the suggestions considered and rejected. It is a description that certain sections of the media might apply to Mrs Porter if she were to continue the progress she has been making since nailing her allegiance to the Union Flag and ends up on the Olympic podium in 2012.
When she broke Thorp's British record, the Daily Mail described her as "a plastic Brit who is using Team GB to fulfil her own Olympic ambitions". Sitting in her Great Britain T-shirt, the woman who was born and brought up in Ypsilanti – the Michigan town where Iggy Pop was raised in a trailer park – and who represented the United States in her junior days tackles the "Plastic Brit" question head on.
"I'd like to dispel any myths that there are about me," she says. Such as? "The fact that people think I switched allegiance because it would be easier to make the team, or that I'm doing it for money." The 23-year-old adds: "Anybody who knows me knows that those things are as far from the truth as possible.
"I've had dual citizenship since birth and I've always been proud of my heritage. My mom is from England, from London. My dad is from Nigeria. I'm not going to apologise for my multi-national background. If anything, I embrace it. It makes me feel very special.
"I didn't think it was going to be such a big fuss, my transition over here. I just hope the British media, as well as the British public, can accept me as a loyal team member, athlete and citizen."
What about the section of the media who have described Porter (and other recent recruits to the British athletics team, Shara Proctor from Anguilla and Shana Cox from the US) as an unauthentic Briton? "Has it upset me?" Porter ponders. "There are some times when it's kind of frustrating. You don't want to hear people saying misinformed things about you.
"Everybody's entitled to their opinion. I just want to make sure that opinions about me are based on truth, and that everybody knows that I am in fact a dual citizen and have been all my life. I just hope that, with my continued progression in the sport, the phrase 'Plastic Brits' will eventually just disseminate and people will focus on performances."
It might have helped in Porter's case had she not chosen to make the following Tweet to the world on American Independence Day: "It's the 4th of July!!!!! Wishing I was in the States to celebrate this special day! I'm definitely there in spirit though."
Then there was the reaction of Thorp when she lost her British record to Porter. "Growing up, my dream was to run for Great Britain," the South Yorkshirewoman told the Daily Mail. "Ofili-Porter's dream would have been to run for America. But she wasn't quite good enough, so she came over here and took somebody's place instead. And it upsets me, because we encouraged her."
Thorp's mind might be Tiffany-twisted, as it were, but the British athletics team have made Porter a welcome member of a squad that contains a considerably smaller percentage of overseas-born representatives than the England cricket or rugby union teams. Cross-nation representation has been a fact of international sporting life since long before even the Daily Mail lured Zola Budd from South Africa to run for Britain in 1984. Back in 1948, when the Olympic Games last came to London, the graceful Trinidadian sprinter Emmanuel McDonald Bailey chose to run for Britain, finishing sixth in the 100m final.
Porter was ranked 24th in the world, with nine Americans ahead of her, when she made the decision last autumn to switch to Britain. She now stands fifth in the global pecking order, behind three US hurdlers and the Australian Sally Pearson, whom she faces on day two of the Aviva London Grand Prix Diamond League meeting at Crystal Palace on Saturday.
In less than 12 months, Porter has been transformed from an athlete who might have struggled to make the cut for the US team to a potential contender for a medal at the World Championships, which open in Daegu, South Korea, on 27 August – and at the Olympic Games in the East End of London next year. Does a part of her not wish she had stuck with the Stars and Stripes?
"Without a shadow, no," she replies. "The reasons for my change weren't because I couldn't make the American team. I could have run for America, Great Britain or Nigeria. I chose Great Britain because I really appreciate the support that we have here.
"The financial aspect was also not a motivational feature at all [Porter is on second-tier "development" level funding from UK Athletics]. I am sponsored by Adidas, so financially I'm okay. I didn't do it for the money.
"I believe that as an athlete I can flourish under this kind of a system. I just thought it was the best fit for me. It feels right.
"Things are done a little differently here. The support is unique: the physios, the medical team, the coaches, the facilities. Everything has been conducive to my success this year."
Porter has a flat in Enfield, near UK Athletics' Lee Valley High Performance Centre. She intends to return to the States next month to complete her masters in pharmacy at the University of Michigan but will be back early next year, ready to fly the home flag in London's Olympic Stadium.
"It brings goose-bumps," she says, looking across at the 2012 arena. "Given the chance to wear the GB vest in the Olympics next year, I'm going to use it to my advantage, and hopefully do very, very well for my country."
There also happens to be a chance of Jeff Porter, Tiffany's husband of three months, competing for his country in 2012. He finished fifth in the 110m hurdles final at the US Championships in June.
"It would be a dream come true if both my husband and I competed in the Olympic Games next year," Mrs Porter says. "He supported me in my decision. He understands who I am."
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