LONDON – The sharp influx of overseas-based athletes into the ranks of Britain’s Olympic hopefuls has divided opinion, as the host nation attempts to secure a record medal haul at London 2012.
To their supporters, athletes such as the United States-born hurdler Tiffany Porter have every right to don British colours in London provided they fulfil the eligibility criteria set down by Olympic chiefs.
Critics however disparage the likes of Porter as a “Plastic Brit”, holding her up as a symbol of a perceived win-at-all-costs selection philosophy that flouts the Olympic spirit, if not necessarily the rulebook.
“Roughly one-fifth of the Great Britain Olympic team is not British and while, to some extent, this positively reflects the cosmopolitan make-up of our country, in the extreme cases… it amounts to little more than cheating,” was the scathing assessment of Daily Mail chief sports writer Martin Samuel.
The issue was thrown into focus at the world indoor athletics championships in March, when Porter, who was born and raised in the United States but qualifies for Britain because of a British mother, was mischievously asked by a reporter to say the words of the anthem “God Save the Queen”.
Porter nervously replied that she knew the words but preferred not to say them as she wasn’t much of a singer. When pressed to recite them, she replied: “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
Several of Porter’s team-mates condemned the line of questioning but the point had been made.
Britain’s Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson duly waded into the issue by saying that any athlete representing Britain should be able to sing the words of the anthem.
“If you are going to represent Britain at the Olympics then I think it is sensible to know the words of the national anthem,” Robertson said.
“I would say that would be even more necessary if you think you are going to win a medal.”
For the athletes caught in the crossfire of the debate, the issue has aroused confusion and dismay.
One of Britain’s biggest medal hopes is the South Africa-born world open water champion Keri-anne Payne.
Payne was born in Johannesburg to British parents before moving to Britain as a 13-year-old. Payne regards herself as British but is equally proud of her South African roots.
“I can sing it (the British national anthem) and I can also sing the South African one,” Payne said recently.
“I have so much to thank South Africa for — my childhood and it got me into swimming and things.
“I don’t see why it would be an issue that someone would want to swim or run for Great Britain, surely we should be championing that. Why would you have a problem with anybody that is British wanting to compete for Britain?” she adds.
“It confuses me.”
Another British hopeful is the Canada-born women’s basketball player Sarah McKay, who speaks with a broad Canadian accent and whose favourite Olympic memory is Canada’s victory over the United States in the 2010 ice hockey final.
McKay is eligible to represent Britain because both of her parents are British, but she acknowledges her presence is a “very touchy subject”.
“Both of my parents were born here, I have become a part of this country and I am proud to be representing Great Britain,” she said. “The only thing that’s missing with me is a British accent.
“It is a very touchy subject and I understand where both sides are coming from and the way it looks but I just think there needs to be a bit more understanding.
“The governing bodies are only doing what’s going to help these teams compete.”
McKay believes the most eloquent response to her critics will be made in the Olympic arena.
“I guess the only way you can really prove that you are proud to be representing your country is to compete for country at the top level and try your hardest,” she said.