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Mail in nationalist overdrive on Olympics

Anna Kessel on the Daily Mail's 'plastic' versus 'genuine' Brits

Most of us would like to believe that the cricket test dreamed up by Norman Tebbit over two decades ago is thoroughly outdated. But in the build up to the home Olympic Games a renewed focus on nationality, through the prism of sport, has seen a revival of some familiar and ugly lines of questioning about cultural and national identity.

The situation reached boiling point at a press conference ahead of the World Indoor Championships in March this year, when a Daily Mail journalist demanded that Britain's athletics team captain – the American-born hurdler Tiffany Porter – stand and sing the national anthem, God Save the Queen. When she declined, the journalist pressed her further. 'What is it? Go on. The words.' Porter's smile faded, as she replied, 'I don't think that's necessary.'

The issue of who should be eligible to pull on a British vest stretched beyond sport, becoming a hot topic among politicians too, mirroring the discussion around immigration with its notion of “genuine” versus “bogus” asylum seekers. With eight foreign-born athletes having been recruited to join the British athletics team, there was further outcry when it was revealed that five Ukrainian-born wrestlers had married British spouses in recent years and were now eligible to compete for Great Britain at the Games.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has promised to scrutinise all athletes' citizen applications from sports governing bodies, while sports minister Hugh Robertson voiced his concern over “fast-tracking” athletes to gain a British passport in time for the Games.

Britain's athletics head coach Charles van Commenee, a Dutchman who is charged with having recruited the so-called “foreigners”, has slammed the discussion. “Since when do we have superior Brits and inferior Brits? My favourite television channel is the History Channel. I watch it every day, and it's usually about the Second World War. We should have learned something. It's dubious territory when you separate superior from inferior, isn't it? We are dealing here with athletes who are British.”

Following the press conference in Istanbul, UK Athletics made a decision to ban the Daily Mail from attending further press briefings – prompting accusations of censorship - but even van Commenee has succumbed in part to the zeitgeist in declaring that all British athletes must learn and rehearse the words to the national anthem because, “if they don't, somebody will make an issue of it.”

The line of interrogation that greeted Porter in March was part of the Daily Mail's year-long campaign against the so-called 'Plastic Brits' representing Britain at the 2012 Olympic Games. The paper has published 208 articles on the subject publicly denouncing any athletes who they feel are not adequately British, examples of which include Porter, who has held a British passport since birth - she has a British mother and Nigerian father - along with the Cuban-born triple jumper, Yamile Aldama, who has been a resident in this country since 2001, has two British children and a British husband.

The irony that it was the Mail who actively lobbied for the South African, Zola Budd, to become a British citizen in order to circumvent the ban preventing South African sports stars competing on a global stage seems entirely lost on the newspaper.

After Porter won a European indoor silver medal at her first championship in a British vest, she was asked if she now felt British. Her response was illuminating. 'I've always felt I was British, American and Nigerian,' she said, firmly. 'I'm all three.' The notion of a more fluid sense of nationality is still a new and unfamiliar concept to some Britons, but it is one that many of the nation's star athletes wholly embrace. The Somali-born Mo Farah is Britain's best hope of an athletics gold medal at the Games. The 29-year-old who became 5,000m world champion in 2011 made the switch from Mogadishu to London aged nine and was said to be furious at the treatment of his teammate Porter. The Mail insist that Farah is a 'genuine' Brit, but refuse to accept that some Britons may have a more complex take on nationality.

While in a modern world the concept of immigration seems largely accepted, in a sporting context the idea of switching allegiance because of your life circumstances or to improve your career prospects is deemed intolerable. But if Britain won the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games by playing on the rich diversity and multiculturalism of London, to now seek and weed out any elements not satisfying the criteria for Britishness seems at best absurd, at worst dangerous.