Unravelling Britain's Asian mystery

The Asian community in Britain has yet to provide a leading footballer or rugby union player, and contributed just two out of 392 competitors at the l ast Olympics. Independent writers examine a sporting conundrum
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Last year, Leyton Orient let London's rapidly expanding Laurentian Life Asian Football League play their cup final at Brisbane Road. At the presentation ceremony, the Orient manager, Chris Turner, said that, quite honestly, he had not been aware that Asians played football, never mind that they had their own league.

There are indeed no professional football players of note in this country who are Asian. Even in cricket, the impact of British-born players on the domestic game has been negligible, despite the fact that Asian cricket leagues teem with activity and talent in areas such as Bradford and Sheffield.

The lack of Asian representation at the highest level goes right across the range of British sports. Of the 392-strong Olympic team in Barcelona three years ago, only two were Asians. And although there are roughly half as many Britons of Afro-Caribbean extraction in this country as there are of Asian extraction - where the figure is around 1.6 million - the British team included 37 black competitors.

The state of affairs can be partly explained by widely held beliefs within British sport about Asian characteristics and weaknesses.

Reasons offered by Premiership clubs to explain why Asians are considered unsuitable for top-level football range from the debatable to the daft. Their diet is unsuitable - "all that vegetarian food". "They don't like the open changing-rooms." They don'tlike "the physical element". "They have to interrupt training to say their prayers." "Some of them refuse to take off their turbans".

The Asian population of this country nevertheless carries with it a complex of cultural and historical factors which have inhibited serious sporting participation. However, there are some notable exceptions: Naseem Hamed, Sheffield's World Boxing Councilworld champion at super-bantamweight, who is of Yemeni origin, and Ikram Butt, born in Leeds of Pakistani parents, who has just made his debut for England's rugby league team.

There have been overwhelmingly strong family pressures on young Asians to concentrate on their studies or help out in family businesses which often involve gruelling hours. Fear of racial abuse has also militated against getting seriously involved in British sport - Naseem Bashir, now playing for Aylesbury in the Vauxhall Conference, said his promising League career with Reading came to an end after sporadic abuse from some of his own team-mates.

"There is a feeling among some Asians who have come to England that they want to keep the same environment they have left," said Gowry Retchakan, the British international 400 metres hurdler, who was born in London of Sri Lankan parents. "Their parents do not speak English, and nor do they."

Many Asian women, particularly Muslims, face huge social pressure not to compete in sport. Retchakan also believes that physical build can tell against Asians. "As a race, they are quite small people," she said. "I happen to have very long legs in relation to my body but not many Asians are built the same. It is not a major factor, but it is still a factor."

A 1991 Manchester University study on ethnic minorities and sport directed by Professor Gajendra Verma concluded that Afro-Caribbean youngsters were "channelled into sport at the expense of their [school] subjects and the Asian community does not value physical education and sport as much as other groups."

Keith Vaz, the Labour MP for Leicester East, accepts the finding. "The Asian community has never regarded sports activity as being a career in the same way as other professions in public life," he said.

"My father was a sports fanatic who played a lot of hockey and cricket, but as far as my parents were concerned I was given the choice of being either a doctor or a doctor. I think it is a generational thing, however, and I believe it is going to change."

One important new factor, he believes, is the increase in rewards now being offered to successful sports figures. Vaz, like many other observers within the Asian community, thinks that sporting role models will play a crucial part in change.

The argument that Asian commitment to sport in this country may grow with the new generation is supported by Rudy Otter, an Anglo-Indian journalist who has written for many years on both sport and business affairs within the Asian community.

"The main sport in the Asian community here has been trying to make money," he said. "It is very difficult to concentrate on anything else when you are working so hard. Over 70 per cent of newsagents in this country, for instance, are Asian. They work very long hours, and their interest in sport is passive - they will watch cricket or football on television. A lot of young people who are expected to help out in their family business have very little time on their own, and they tend to use it to rest.

"But young Asians who were born here are more in tune with the English way of life, and if they see their friends playing cricket or soccer they will want to join them.

"I have seen evidence that the Asian attitude to academic study has altered. In order to be more popular at school, some Asian children are losing interest in their studies and taking up sport."

Changing attitudes to the traditional family businesses, Otter believes, are also likely to free new generations for sporting endeavour. "Ask any Asian youth if they want to work in shops like their parents do and the answer is almost always no. They have seen the long hours their parents have worked, and they want nine-to-five jobs."

Within a generation, perhaps, Ricky Heppolette, the Indian who played for five League clubs including Crystal Palace, may be seen less as an anomaly than as a forerunner akin to Leeds United's black winger of the 1960s, Albert Johanneson. Black players who now make up nearly a quarter of this country's professional numbers.

"It is definitely going to change," said Nazim Saleemi, chairman of the Asian Football League. "The sooner talent scouts realise that Asians can play football the quicker the barriers will come tumbling down.

"The old attitudes to sport in the Asian community are changing. I am third generation in this country, and if my two boys want to play football as a career I will say `Yes, of course, go for it'."