Exclusive: Home office will shut door on 'Plastic Brits'


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The Independent Online

The Government is preparing a clampdown on foreign athletes seeking to represent Britain at the 2012 Olympic Games.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has been urged to scrutinise all new citizenship applications from sports bodies whose squads contain foreign-born athletes. It is likely that some may be rejected.

The argument over athletes brought in from abroad, often at the expense of home-grown talent has been simmering for months. Now the Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, has stepped into the debate, telling The Independent on Sunday that he is opposed to such fast-tracking in the quest to bolster Britain's medal haul.

The issue has been highlighted by British Wrestling's recruitment of several grapplers from eastern Europe and trying to qualify them for Team GB. Four of the seven-strong squad on the £3.5 million world-class performance programme are from Ukraine, and one from Bulgaria. Particularly contentious is the issue of qualification via marriage. In the wrestling community there are believed to have been five marriages to Britons which wrestling bosses insist are all "above board".

But Robertson admits his unease. "I think that all naturalised athletes should follow the normal citizenship requirements and I do not support fast-tracking people to win a medal. Therefore while I am supportive of [Kevin] Pietersen, who came here through a family connection to become English and served all the necessary qualifying periods, the wrestlers do not seem to be in the same category."

The Home Secretary will be asking questions about future applications for citizenship. Among these will be one from wrestler Olga Butkevych, who won a silver medal in the 55kg category at the recent Olympic test event. She is one of two foreign-born wrestlers in the GB squad with a realistic hope of reaching the 2012 podium. The other is another Ukrainian woman, Yana Stadnik, who like her compatriot came here in 2007 ostensibly as a "sparring partner" for British wrestlers and has married Briton Leon Rattigan, a member the five-strong men's elite squad. The men's squad also features a Bulgarian and two Ukrainians, one of whom, Myroslav Dykun, has been here since 2003 and is married to an Englishwoman.

It takes five years to become a naturalised British citizen, though this can be expedited through marriage. IOC rules state that athletes must wait three years after a change of citizenship before competing for their new country but this is reduced to one year when both countries agree.

Wrestling is not unique in being heavily laced with overseas talent. The British athletics squad at the World Championships included two who switched nationalities, with more in contention for 2012.

Among these foreign legions are triple jumper Yamila Aldama (born Cuba, who has already competed for Sudan, but married a Briton); 400m runner Shana Cox (born and lives in US); long jumper Shara Proctor (born Anguilla, lives in the US) and 100m hurdler Tiffany Porter (born and lives in US). Charles van Commenee, Britain's Dutch head coach, simply shrugs: "If they knock on our door and say, 'I have a British passport, I can run this fast and jump this far', then we'll select them."

Other sports affected include equestrianism, whose Laura Bechtolsheimer was born in Mainz to German parents, and basketball's American Nate Reinking, whose official profile says that his marriage to a British woman "allowed him to gain citizenship and fill the 'foreigner' position on the national team".

Of the 41 male and female players available for Britain's Olympic handball teams, 25 were born or raised overseas, but only Italian-born Dani Sposi had to apply for citizenship. "We don't do passport-shopping and have never asked the British Olympic Association to fast-track any passport applications," says a British Handball spokesman.

While authorities argue that medal success in London will provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ignite interest in their sports, critics complain that buying-in foreign talent has had a damaging, demoralising effect on British athletes, some of whom have lost Lottery funding that is now granted to the carpetbaggers.