Let’s Peel the ‘Plastic’ Label off Team GB’s Foreign-born Athletes

Published on The Huffington Post.


The media has been expending plenty of column inches and airtime lamenting various aspects of the upcoming Olympic Games. Make no mistake: the failure of G4S to provide the requisite security staff is a true debacle, and lampooning a pitiful British summer has always been fair game. But one of the less helpful stories to have emerged in recent weeks is the discussion of so-called ‘Plastic Brits’: members of the British Olympic team who were born overseas.

The Telegraph has compiled a rather elaborate infographic to illustrate the point. It shows that 60 of Team GB’s 542 athletes were born overseas, which, at first glance, seems like quite a lot. Nation states are the basic currency of the Games, with national anthems, flags and kits providing so much of the iconography at each Olympiad, so the idea that national borders are so permeable to sportspeople might seem to pose a threat to this core principle.
But delve a little deeper into the Telegraph‘s list, and the whole concept of ‘Plastic Brits’ basically melts away. First of all, some of Team GB’s leading lights, like Bradley Wiggins and Beth Tweddle, make the list by virtue of being born to abroad to British parents. Who knew Wimbledon regular Laura Robson was born abroad? More to the point, who cares?
This raises a problem for proponents of the ‘Plastic Brits’ idea. As soon as one or two technically foreign-born athletes are deemed ‘British enough’ to take part (and find me anyone who would deprive cycling supremo Wiggins of a shot in the Olympic time trial), plausibly anyone else born outside the country also has a claim to compete under the British flag. This is where the argument gets messy – how do you define ‘sufficient Britishness’? Residence in the UK? Having two British parents?
The obvious but important answer is that we don’t decide who does and who doesn’t qualify as British – that’s the job of the Home Office and Border Agency. As such, each of the 60 foreign-born Team GB athletes is a British citizen with a British passport, and they couldn’t compete otherwise. Thus changing immigration law would be the only way to affect the Olympic selection policy on the grounds of nationality.
In any case, pointing out that particular legal nicety isn’t the primary aim of this article. My main point is that by looking at these ‘Plastic Brits’ as the real people and exceptional athletes that they are, rather than through the crude, futile lens of ‘sufficient nationalism’, the stories you find show our country at its open, plural and dynamic best.
Take the story of Luol Deng, the NBA basketball star so valuable that UK Basketball is paying some £300,000 just to insure him against injury. Born in what recently became independent South Sudan, Deng and his family fled unrest and were granted political asylum in the UK. Deng’s formative years spent in Brixton undoubtedly helped him reach the heights of the NBA. Or look at Mo Farah, who could win two medals on the track in London. Born in Somalia, Farah moved to Britain where it was a PE teacher who spotted and nurtured his talent for long distance running, in spite of Farah’s initially limited English.
Then there is the sub-category of athletes who have competed under different flags in past competitions. If anything, the biographies of some of these competitors are even more remarkable. Yamile Aldama, the triple jumper who will turn 40 a fortnight after competing in London, has actually represented two countries already, her native Cuba and Sudan. Having married a Scottish husband she emigrated here in 2001 and applied straight away for a British passport. Only after a decade, which she lived through inincredibly tough circumstances as a single mother in virtual poverty, was Aldama awarded what she craved: British citizenship and with it the right to compete under the Union Jack.
Finally, consider the case of long jumper Shara Proctor, who was born and competed for Anguilla before switching to the British team in 2010. The thing is, Anguilla is not an independent country but a British Overseas Dependency, meaning it doesn’t actually have the ability to send athletes to the Games under its flag. One wonders whether some of the same people offended by recent Argentinian propaganda showing a hockey player training on the Falklands are those who decry ‘foreign’ competitors like Proctor competing for Team GB.
Of course, by 2016 Britain’s sports authorities may be dealing with an entirely new set of problems over nationality. With the looming referendum over Scottish independence in 2014, in four years’ time we may be speculating over the eligibility of such sporting stars as Sir Chris Hoy and Andy Murray to compete under the British flag. I somehow doubt that a ‘Plastic Scots’ debate would be any more enlightening or helpful than the present ‘Plastic Brits’ question.
Ultimately each of the 542 athletes who compete for Team GB in London has earned their right to be there. So this summer let’s cast aside the ‘Plastic’ label and let each athlete have their moment in the sun. Metaphorically, at least.

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