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Dominic Lawson: The Olympics are about ambition, not national pride

Team GB could be called Team BG and it would make no difference to many representing it

Dominic Lawson
Tuesday 13 March 2012 01:00 GMT

Apparently, there is a new Olympic qualifying standard for those wanting to represent Great Britain – or Team GB, to use the ghastly official name. The Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, has declared that: "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 would say it is even more necessary if you think you are going to win a medal."

No, it isn't. The appropriate conduct when on the podium is just to stand there with a radiant grin and shining eyes. Better still, let the lower lip wobble a bit and allow noble tears of pride and relief course down your cheeks. Singing doesn't enter into it.

Besides which, the athletes are now spending every waking moment concentrating on training. They shouldn't be taking hours memorising all those tricky bits about scattering the Queen's enemies, frustrating their knavish tricks, and confounding their politics. To be fair, what Mr Robertson probably meant is they should learn the first verse. But his motive was not concern that our athletes would otherwise risk looking like John Redwood, when as Welsh Secretary he was captured on film desperately trying to mime the words of the Welsh anthem and failing comically.

No, the minister was responding to a campaign by The Daily Mail. The newspaper has been turning its formidable fire power on so called "Plastic Brits" – its name for foreign-born and trained athletes who have switched nationality for the sole purpose, as it seems, to better their chances of gaining an Olympic medal (or just to take part).

Last week, Tiffany Porter was named as the captain of "Team GB" for the World Indoors Championship (there is such a thing). At the press conference announcing this, a reporter for The Daily Mail asked her if she could sing the first verse of the National Anthem. Porter said she could, but she wouldn't (rather the same response that I would have given to such an irritating question). If she actually doesn't know any of the words, it would not be in the least surprising. Porter has spent her life in the US, winning a silver medal for that nation in the world junior championships in 2006 and only representing this country in 2010, after she failed to make the cut for the American team. Though not even among the top five or six in the US in her chosen event, the 100m hurdles, she is better than any of her British rivals.

Her technical eligibility, it should be emphasised, is not an issue. While Porter was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan, she is the daughter of someone born in England and so always had the right to a British passport. It's just that she's only found the need to use it very recently. Whatever the feelings of the British hurdler who would have been displaced by her in the team, Charles van Commenee (the Dutch coach masterminding the British Olympic effort) is purely concerned with maximising the number of medals produced by "Team GB" in London this August.

So, Porter is not alone in being encouraged to switch her sporting nationality to Blighty. About 50 members of what van Commenee calls Team GB will be foreign-born athletes with dual nationality, who, at least according to The Daily Mail, "jumped aboard the Olympic bandwagon after London was selected to host the Games".

My hunch is that the great majority of Britons (apart from friends and families of those home-grown athletes who are displaced) do not worry much about this. Forget all that guff about the honour being solely in the taking part: I suspect that what the British public will want is to see as many of "our" team as possible taking their places on the winners' podium. After all, back in the 1980s, The Daily Mail campaigned for the South African 5,000m runner Zola Budd to represent this country (she had one British grandparent). As a result of its efforts and noisy support, the then British government granted her a passport with remarkable rapidity. The Mail had argued that this genuine sporting phenomenon had no other chance to compete internationally, because her native land was ostracised from international sport at the time. The fact remains that Budd was, if anything, less British than Tiffany Porter.

As it happens, a bevy of South African-born sportsmen with a single English parent or grandparent represent England at cricket – most notably Pietermaritzburg's own Kevin Pietersen. While Pietersen has ostentatiously had the England "Three Lions" tattooed on to his arm for all to see, his true feelings were made clear a few years ago in an interview with GQ magazine. He was asked about the fan mail he got from English women, which included, in his words, "Pictures of girls with their bits out." When the interviewer said, "That's outrageous", Pietersen replied "I know, but look, it's your nation, not mine."

For all that, I suspect that Pietersen is not so very different, in his motivations, to his English-born and bred colleagues or ex-colleagues. I know one or two of them, and what they say is that for them the point of playing for England was to represent the highest level that they could and to have the best career possible. It was nothing much to do with patriotism, they insisted. On the other hand, as one pointed out to me: "Because we were developed and trained in England, if we did well in the national side, it proved that the game in this country is working well. I've nothing against Kevin, but if you had 11 Pietersens in the England side, what would any amount of victories prove about the health of the game and its grassroots in this country? We'd be kidding ourselves."

This is quite close to the argument of The Mail's outstanding sportswriter Martin Samuel, who declares of the Olympics: "If it's not our best against your best, then what's the point?" The truth, however, is that the Olympics has for decades been an overt display of whipped-up nationalism disguising the true nature of the event – individuals stopping at nothing to pursue intensely personal ambitions. "Team GB" could be renamed "Team BG" and it would make no difference to almost all of those representing it.

The public may feel differently – just as football supporters are much more loyal to their team than any of those who actually represent it. For the players, it is all about their careers; as one professional sportsman remarked to me: "We are much more pragmatic than the fans realise." Or, to put it another way, even if they are singing "Send her victorious", they are thinking about a much more personal form of victory.

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