The Last Word: Passport to run for GB? It's in the Mail
Porter's treatment by newspaper shows criticism of switched allegiances is fuelled by hypocrisy
There were questions left to be asked after the gentleman from the Daily Mail enquired whether Tiffany Porter could sing "the first lines of 'God Save the Queen'", when the American-born and raised runner was presented as Britain's athletics team captain last week. The most immediate query that sprung to mind was: did he mean the tune that now serves as the national anthem of the United Kingdom and has been sung since the 18th century, or the jaunty ditty that was belted out by Johnny Rotten and his Sex Pistols in 1977?
It would have lightened the suddenly leaden atmosphere had Mrs Porter got to her feet, raving about the fascist regime making us all morons. As it was, the hurdler – who has a British mother and has had dual nationality since birth – declined to take the bait on the eve of the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul.
She said she knew the words but didn't feel it necessary to air them. All of which left the Mail to rant and rave the next day about UK Athletics, the governing body of track and field in Britain – whose head coach, Charles van Commenee, made the decision to appoint Porter – being "blind to their folly" and "morally vacuous".
The newspaper labelled Porter a "self-serving arriviste" and accused Van Commenee of using "Britain like a doormat," describing him as "a Dutch head coach who would enter a Martian if the paperwork worked out."
They also wheeled out the Olympics minister, Hugh Robertson, who was quoted as saying: "If you are going to represent Britain at the Olympics then I think it is sensible to know the words of the National Anthem. I am pretty clear on this — anyone who wants to compete for Great Britain must hold a British passport or go through the full naturalisation process. What I am against is giving special treatment to people simply to allow them to compete for this country."
Those of us who have been following British athletics a little longer than some who now qualify as authorities, just in time for the home Games, are wondering whether the Daily Mail is simply having a laugh, Ricky Gervais-style, with the relentless crusade it launched last year against those whom it sees as "plastic Brits".
The unanswered query is whether the same newspaper asked the same question of Zola Budd when it made the South African the most celebrated plastic sporting Brit of all? But back in 1984 the Daily Mail wasn't interested in whether an athlete from overseas could recite the words to "God Save the Queen". It simply wanted to achieve a high-profile coup – and, very nobly, to circumvent the block placed on athletes from South Africa in those apartheid days.
They succeeded in doing so, and all because Ian Wooldridge, the late, great bard of the Daily Mail sports pages, made a passing mention that the South African wonderkid happened to have a British grandfather.
"'Brilliant,' cried David English, our editor of the time," Wooldridge recalled in a Daily Mail column in 2003. "Because of the British family connection she shall run for us... I can pick up this phone and get her a British passport in two days.' He did. Within a week Zola was in Britain but the large sum of money involved did not bring her happiness."
Indeed it did not. With the Mail's help and some "special treatment," to quote the 2012 Olympics minister, Budd gained a British passport in record time but her tangle with Mary Decker in the 3,000 metres final at the Los Angeles Olympics left the home crowd screaming for her blood and the American favourite without a leg to stand on. Which, it could be said, is the same position as the Daily Mail now.
Yes, it was unwise of Van Commenee to select Porter as team leader ahead of longer-serving members of the squad, playing as it did into the hands of a right-wing agenda. For the same reason, it was perhaps unwise of UK Athletics to ban the Mail from team press conferences and athlete interviews. Even crassly put questions have a right to be posed by a free press, and freely debated.
Still, in this 21st-century world of blurred boundaries, where international transferees in all sports have become ten a penny or a dozen a dollar (and where a recent recruit to the Turkish team from Kenya was interviewed track-side in Istanbul on Friday and could not speak of word of his new home language, let alone sing the anthem) can the poacher who bagged the most celebrated catch of all really turn moral-ground-guarding gamekeeper?
To answer that particular question, I rather think not.
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