Discover more from Sport inc.
Fluid nationality and managerial grace under pressure
Dazzled by Great Britain’s three golden moments at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Istanbul last weekend, you’ll likely have missed the home nation’s unexpected victory in the women’s triple jump. Reeling from last month’s earthquake devastation, Turkey will have drawn some comfort from Tugba Danismaz’s winning leap. And she was only ranked ninth in Europe heading into the champs.
Istanbul last hosted a major athletics event eleven years ago. The World Indoors were just months before London 2012 and came at the height of a tabloid-confected furore about the composition of GB’s Olympic team. I was chair of UK Athletics at the time and our captain at the Indoors was Tiffany Porter. The hurdler, born in the US of British and Nigerian parents, was labelled a ‘Plastic Brit’ by journalists convinced that UK Sport’s drive for medals was leading to home-developed athletes being displaced by others imported from overseas.
The nadir of the debate - if the mud-slinging could be dignified with that name - came at our pre-event press conference. Porter was asked whether she could recite any of the national anthem by one of Fleet Street’s finest. No matter the legitimacy of her British passport. The hurdler went on to win silver in Istanbul, one of eight medals for GB - plus a Commonwealth silver for England - before her retirement last year.
“The merits of her selection are a moot point now, but for [head coach Charles] Van Commenee to make her captain is a needless slap in the face for all those who have proudly represented Britain - and only Britain - for many years.” Daily Mail in 2012
An analysis by the Daily Telegraph at the time concluded that 11% of Britain’s Olympic team were born overseas. Rather a low number to my mind given the fluidity of mankind and the make-up of the UK’s population. Yes, our coaching team did have a keen eye out globally for talented athletes eligible to wear a GB vest. And the luxurious UK Sport performance programme was certainly a magnet.
But we were far from alone. One of Turkey’s two medallists* at those World Indoors was İlham Tanui Özbilen, born in Kenya as William Biwott Tanui. His change of name and national allegiance had come only a year previously, inside the two year window that the international governing body usually applied to such switches. I remember well his infield interview after his silver medal. Of necessity, it was conducted in English rather than Turkish.
Thankfully, the distasteful ‘Plastic Brit’ episode now appears like a period piece. Subsequent research indicated that 2012 represented no more than a small bump up in the proportion of British Olympians drawn from overseas. More importantly, sport-watching society seems to have moved on. Perhaps it’s the continued flow of ‘outsiders’ into England’s cricket and rugby teams, an influx that has been evident for far longer than a decade now.
I’d like to think that greater acceptance of diversity - especially ethnicity - is a major factor. Nothing I can prove, but certainly a sense I have from operating within sport. Of course, there is still quite some distance to travel in this regard, which makes the upcoming James Graham play at the National Theatre, Dear England, intriguing to say the least.
With Joseph Fiennes playing England’s football head coach Gareth Southgate, Dear England is billed as ‘a gripping examination of both nation and game.’ Expect missed penalties at Euro 2020 and their aftermath, in which race loomed large in the public discourse. I’ve booked my ticket.
Southgate hasn’t single-handedly changed social attitudes, but he is swimming with a welcome tide. As yet, the England football team is drawn almost exclusively from those both born and developed as players in England itself. But in time this will surely change.
With Premier League clubs sourcing prodigies from overseas for their academies, and as the Home Office considers easing the flow of talent into Britain, we could see residency qualify footballers for England who some might deem ‘plastic’ – or at least would have done in that earlier, more bigoted age.
* Turkey was subsequently stripped of its other Istanbul medal because of a doping offence
Sat on a fence but it don't work
The view from St James’ Park, under pressure, then and now:
“We have not resorted to that, but I'll tell you, you can tell him now if you're watching it, we're still fighting for this title, and he's got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and... and... I'll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them, love it!” Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan in April 1996 with Sir Alex Ferguson clearly in his head as the title race neared its conclusion. He resigned nine months later
“We will win the Carabao Cup. We will win the FA Cup. We will win the Champions League and we will win the Premier League.” Newcastle co-owner Amanda Staveley
“Time is a very small commodity when you are sat in my shoes.” The Magpies’ current manager Eddie Howe
Howe is the 24th Newcastle manager in the 26 years since Kevin Keegan (including Keegan himself who returned for seven months in 2008). There have been 29 different managers in the Premier League so far this season (not including caretakers).
The Cricketer reports that Colin Graves is poised to make what it describes as a ‘controversial return’ as chair of Yorkshire Cricket. The county may be deeply in hock to his family trust and desperate to find ways to satisfy this creditor, but if the ECB endorses the return of Graves - YCCC chair 2013-15 and then chair of the ECB itself 2015-20 - I think it’s fair to say its new broom will have snapped in two.
The rights and wrongs of the past are in one way irrelevant: fresh leadership is surely a prerequisite if cricket is to move beyond its current governance crisis. You can read The Cricketer here
Whistle up a storm
A petulant Bruno Fernandes lays hands on a ref’s assistant while captaining Man Utd to a seven goal defeat and the CEO of charity Ref Support UK gets quoted in the national media expressing his concern for football officials. A quick check of the Charity Commission website shows Ref Support had income of £643 last year, expenditure of £655 and £564 cash in the bank (no missing zeros). How’s that for PR leverage?
You can contribute to Ref Support’s work by donating here