Richard Bath: ‘When the eyes and ears of the world are turned on us this summer, what they will hear is an American’

Jumping ship: Former American athlete Tiffany Ofili-Porter has run into controversy over her appointment as Team GB captain. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Jumping ship: Former American athlete Tiffany Ofili-Porter has run into controversy over her appointment as Team GB captain. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
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TIFFANY Ofili-Porter is pretty, well-spoken and intelligent. As she proved when winning a silver at the European Indoor Athletics Championship in Istanbul yesterday, she is one of the best hurdlers in the world, and she is undoubtedly a decent outside bet for a medal in London this summer.

The 110m hurdler is many things to many people, but two things she is not are British, and a suitable choice to captain Team GB at the 2012 London Olympics.

Thanks to her English mother she may be eligible for the passport which means that she is allowed to wear the Union Jack vest, but the decision to appoint her as the captain of the team for Istanbul last week was as insensitive as a reporter’s decision to test her knowledge of the lyrics for God Save The Queen in the press conference called to announce her appointment. When the eyes and ears of the world are turned on us this summer, what they will hear is an American with an overwhelming desire to end her days as an Olympic medal winner.

It would be tempting but wrong to absolve the man who took the decision to appoint her as Team GB skipper, Charles Van Commenee, of any blame. After all, the Dutchman brought in to overhaul British athletics ahead of the Olympics has only one priority, and that’s to produce as many medals as possible. A strong disciplinarian, as he proved in his rancorous and long-running spat with Phillips Idowu, he’s a man who likes talking and isn’t so keen on listening.

Had he done any of the latter, he could not have failed to have noticed the deep groundswell of concern that the arrival of “plastic Brits” such as American 400m runner Shana Cox, Anguilan long jumper Shara Proctor, veteran triple-jumper Yamile Aldama (who has previously competed for Cuba and Sudan) and Ofili-Porter herself caused on their recent arrival on these shores. If that concern was apparent when these incomers decided that they were British – in the case of Ofili-Porter, at 23 years of age and after representing the USA – it was unmistakeable and visceral last summer when Ofili-Porter posted the following tweet on her Twitter account: “It’s the 4th of July!!!!!! Wishing I was in the States to celebrate this special day! I’m definitely there in spirit though”.

This was enough to draw an ironic response from the former Olympic sprinter Ato Boldon, who tweeted back “thought u British now lol” but there were already lots of people who were definitely not laughing out loud. One of them was former sprint hurdler Angie Thorp, who lost her 15-year-old record to Ofili-Porter at a meeting in Holland. “Growing up, my dream was to run for Great Britain,” said Thorp. “Ofili-Porter’s dream would have been to run for America. But she wasn’t quite good enough, so she came over here and took somebody’s place instead. And it upsets me, because we encouraged her.”

Nor was Thorp’s the only voice raised in protest at the resources (these athletes are all fully-funded from the lottery) and opportunity given to athletes who have previously shown no affiliation or commitment to the cause. In such circumstances, to appoint her as skipper – as the spokesman for not just a team but a nation in Olympic year – beggars belief.

So, too, do so many of the justifications. Van Commenee talks about detractors who believe in “superior and inferior” British athletes as “Nazis” – ridiculous, emotive language that should have drawn censure from sports minister Hugh Robertson. And Jessica Ennis raised the spectre of xenophobia, asking why Ofili-Porter is less suitable than Mo Farah, who came to London from Somalia at the age of seven. The reason is simple: Farah grew up wanting to run for England and Britain, and he’s a man who has the same cultural reference points as most of us. Farah may have been born outside of these shores, but he is unmistakeably a Londoner, and defines himself as such.

That, by the way, is the key. Ian McGeechan was born in Yorkshire, has never lived in Scotland and was asked to play for England, yet he saw himself as Scottish and so should we. Much the same goes for 1500m runner Steph Twell, who was born and brought up in the Home Counties but has never wanted to run for anyone else but Scotland.

Simply qualifying to wear the shirt, however, is not the issue. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the “plastic Brits” controversy, the decision has been taken that if an athlete is qualified then they have to be considered. Yet that is a world away from possibly taking an unforced and conscious decision to appoint an American to captain Team GB at the first home Olympics for over 60 years.

As the John Terry controversy proved, being the national captain on such an occasion is about more than your ability to win a medal, about more than looking good in front of the cameras. It is about being one of us, and about sharing the aspirations of every one of us, about representing the best of what we have to offer. Which makes me wonder: can Ofili-Porter truly look us in the eye and tell us that this is what she is?