A big well done and thank you to Martyn Rooney. The 400m runner proved to be an oasis of sense in a British Athletics Championships threatening to be side-tracked by a crass, xenophobic discussion of national identity, opportunity, and the supposedly ‘plastic’ Brits.
Harangued by a BBC trackside-pain-in-the-ass, probably Phil Jones, Rooney was quizzed post-race not only on his performance in the 400m heats, but also on his attitude to those athletes, born overseas, who have recently been cleared to compete for Great Britain. In defiance of his lung-busting run, the lactic acid build-up in his legs, and the views of the Daily Mail, Rooney offered this articulate response:
“It’s kind of an offensive term ‘plastic Brits’. Y’know we’re very lucky to have guys who can run, compete for us, and they make the events better. All of those guys contribute to British sport, British culture, so we’re very lucky to have them here.”
To be fair, Rooney was not the only voice speaking out for British athletes hailing from abroad. Although Gabby Logan was quick to tell us that “reaction had been mixed”, there was a unanimity among the analysts joining the coverage from Birmingham. “I actually think, the way sport is at the moment – cricket, rugby, football – it doesn’t matter… They have legitimate dual-nationality. It’s fine. We have to move on,” said Denise Lewis, gold medallist in the heptathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Paula Radcliffe (a migrant herself who now resides in the south of France) agreed, if somewhat reluctantly: “We’re not talking about some other countries who have gone out and brought runners in – these people have a legitimate right to represent Great Britain.” On Friday Steve Cram, writing in a piece for the BBC Sport website, put the whole furore into perspective, explaining why he has “no problem” with the so-called ‘plastic Brits’:
“Some might argue that they didn't train in the British system but, in fact, there's no system here. There's a funding programme, but below that there isn't anything. People can learn to be an athlete in any part of the world. There's no investment in athletics clubs in Britain, which means only those who run here are eligible to run for Britain.
"I guess the big issue is that newcomers arriving puts others in the team under a lot of pressure. But that can happen if an athlete pops up from anywhere - it doesn't matter where they were born. If you think you were shoo-in to get into the team and somebody else pops up you weren't expecting, then you have to deal with that."
The plastic Brit ‘controversy’ – such as it is – was sparked by the announcement that “five foreign-born athletes” had switched allegiance to Team GB over the past month. This drew a sarcastic and negative response from Richard Kilty, a World and European indoor 60m champion, and apparently caused similar outrage amongst his fellow competitors: “All sprinters,” tweeted Kilty, “I’ve spoken to this morning in the team feel exactly the same as me but daren’t speak out.” The roots of the debate however can be traced back to 2012 and the run-up to the London Olympics. It was then that the Daily Mail ran a story informing the world that there would be 61 ‘plastic’ Brits competing at the Games for Team GB.
Many of the tropes deployed in discussion of the ‘plastic’ Brits will be familiar to anyone paying attention to the long-running demonization and scapegoating of migrants arriving in the UK. They perceived as foreign interlopers, costing the ‘true’, ‘hard-working’ Brits their jobs and squad places. No matter the ‘validity’ of their decision to relocate to this country, their motives are treated with distrust and disdain. They are seen to have arrived as mercenaries, in search of welfare state handouts or Lottery funding. Whether he realises it or not, Kilty has assumed the role of the defiant truthsayer (traditionally reserved for such intellects as Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn or Nigel Farrage), the voice of a silent majority too browbeaten by the forces of political correctness to stand up to the perceived injustice.
In six weeks’ time the World Athletics Championship will begin in Beijing. If the performances seen during the early Diamond League meetings are anything to go by, then it promises to be a magnificent week of track and field competition. It would be truly terrible if this sporting spectacle was hijacked by the right-wing press looking to spout off over their latest manufactured scare story. That Martyn Rooney spoke out is to be applauded.