Heated debate surrounds track and field in Britain, some people offended by the fact that Britain’s record nine medals in second place at the indoor world championships included five from athletes born outside the United Kingdom. The morality and/or legality of their selection complicates the argument.
As an aside, it should be noted that nothing has occurred which legally conflicts with IOC regulations covering nationality exchange, though there is genuine cause for concern on morality.
The nature of modern sport is cosmopolitan. Jet travel and electronic communication shrink the world. Yet while the U.S., say, an immigrant kaleidoscope of the whole world, is accustomed to being represented socially, politically and sportingly, by those with backgrounds from almost every race and creed, some in Britain, former apex of an empire, are not fully adjusted to international integration, still being overly Anglo-Saxon-minded – in the same way, for instance, that not all Germans are at ease with their World Cup football team including a naturalized Turk.
The British view is partly hypocritical. This island race has long been content to borrow foreigners in furtherance of sporting prestige. Prince Alexander Obolensky, born in St Petersburg, scored England’s most dramatic rugby try of the Thirties. Emmanuel McDonald Bailey from Trinidad served in the wartime Royal Air Force but represented Britain in two Olympic Games, gaining a 100m bronze medal in 1952, by when Trinidad had their own national Olympic committee.
Greg Rusedski came from Canada to represent Britain in the Davis Cup; Tony Greig and currently Kevin Pietersen from South Africa to play Test cricket, free of the protest that surrounded convenience-runner Zola Budd’s temporary citizenship in 1984. Last weekend, Pacific islander Manu Tuilagi, who has lived half his life in Britain, was part of England’s rugby victory over France.
The moral argument devolves on whether a nationality switch is for private reasons – genuine migration, marriage, escape from persecution – or for personal sporting advantage. The IOC regulation requires a three-year minimum ‘’quarantine’’ unless both countries are in agreement to the swap. A clear breach was Rashid Ramzi’s long jump from Morocco to Bahrain, his ambition to win Beijing’s 1,500m… successful until disqualified when drug positive.
Several Arab countries are conspicuous for attempted convenience-transfers, especially with African runners. Whereas Kenyan record-breaker Wilson Kipketer’s delayed qualification with Denmark was wholly genuine, as was Somalian Mo Farrah’s move to the UK.
In many respects British sport is overtly cosmopolitan. More than 50 per cent of the Premier League consists of foreign players. Britain has a German rowing coach, a Russian in charge of diving, a Dutch athletics coach, a Zimbabwean guiding the Test cricketers – maybe shortly South African – and until recently an Italian manager for national football.
At the heart of the debate is the decision by Charles van Commenee, athletics coach, to appoint Tiffany Porter as captain of Britain’s indoor team at Istanbul: a U.S.-born hurdler, of dual nationality through her English mother, but American in her emotional affiliations. Failing to make the U.S. Olympic team for Beijing, she opted instead to represent Britain two years ago, though remaining resident in America.
When well-intentioned servicemen are altruistically risking their lives in oppressed foreign lands, is it really equitable for a foreign coach to select quasi-nationals to represent the country on the sporting field?
With the leading sports trophy nations, from front-line of the global economic league table, dependent on government funding, national governing bodies of individual sports will go to any lengths to justify expenditure by boosting their medal haul. There is mutual advantage in the enlistment of Porter, not to mention the exclusion of a possibly more deserving, genuine Brit.
Equally at risk is the more abstract concept of the Olympic motto: that the important aspect of the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. If Porter wants to borrow another country, why not Guam, say?
As controversial as Porter among Britain’s medals , labeled by critics ‘ plastic Brits ‘, was Cuban-born Yamile Aldama, winner of the triple jump. Having competed at Sydney 2000, she married a Scot, Andrew Dodd. She applied for UK citizenship, her husband meanwhile imprisoned for drug smuggling. Remaining unaffiliated, Aldama accepted convenience-nationality with Sudan, competing for that country at Athens and Beijing, until officially registered by Britain in time to jump at Istanbul.
At this week’s IOC executive board meeting in Lausanne, Aldama was confirmed as eligible for London 2012 — as was German-born cyclist Philip Hindes, considered also to be another potential medal winner for medal-hungry Britain
China threw the concept of universality out of the window in 2008 in their medal lust. Canada, so uncharacteristically, blighted the ethics of their Winter Games in 2010 with their bloated slogan ‘’Own the Podium’’: antithesis of the Olympic spirit. It must be asked whether Britain, once the epitome of fair play, is boarding the same boat?
This piece appeared in The Olympic News Digest and International Inside Sports Newsletter is edited and published by Karl-Heinz Huba. Huba is based in Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached via email at ISMG@aol.com . David Miller wrote this piece and can be reached by contacting The Sport Intern.