By Leon Spence
By the time you read this column, all things being equal, the greatest of all British athletes, Sir Mo Farah, will be preparing for his final ever race on a running track. It is just possible he is about to bring home an unprecedented – for a distance runner – 11th gold medal from a global championships.
In his 10,000 metre race last weekend, the first of a potential double alongside the 5,000 metres this week, Farah looked and ran like the supreme athlete that he is. An early plea for support from his home crowd and undoubtedly a little gamesmanship to antagonise his fellow competitors guaranteed that Mo would be subjected to both a fast paced and at times nasty race as African nations worked together to try and topple Britain’s most mercurial athlete.
It was the aftermath of that race last weekend though that I want to reflect on today and it was, in fact, just one tweet in particular that got me thinking.
Straight after last week’s 10,000 metres race former England Rugby Union hooker Brian Moore took to Twitter writing ‘Mo Farah – simply stupendous’. Within a few minutes another Twitter user replied to Moore’s tweet with just one word ‘somalian (sic)’, Moore’s response was almost as brief and certainly cannot be printed in a family newspaper.
Now on the face of it that unnamed Twitter user was arguably right. Sir Mo was born in Somalia before his family moved to Djibouti and onwards to London by the time the young Mo was eight years old. But it wasn’t that fact that most interested me but Moore’s exceptionally direct and vitriolic response.
The always forthright Mr Moore was simply protecting someone who to most of us is a national treasure. Last year Heinz Beanz, in one of those meaningless surveys manufacturers carry out to get their product into the press, asked Britons what made them most proud to be British and then they listed the results. You might guess many of the things that respondents identified: the NHS; roast beef and Yorkshire pudding; Her Majesty, the Queen and decent bacon sandwiches but there in 21st place was Mo Farah. When we think about what makes us proud to be who we are, for many of us, Sir Mo rightly jumps to the forefront of our consciousness.
Sir Mo’s story is a remarkable one; leaving the country of his birth and separation from an identical twin brother; growing up in London; falling in love and marrying his childhood girlfriend before worldwide domination in the sport of his choosing. It is a tale that undoubtedly resonates with our sense of Britishness.
Just a few short weeks ago another British sportsman celebrated an unprecedented victory. No Briton has ever dominated the world of cycling like Chris Froome and on 23rd July this world beating cyclist claimed his fourth victory as winner of the Tour de France; the world’s most famous and arduous bike race.
Froome too was born in Africa, in his case Nairobi, Kenya, to an English father and although at first he represented that nation internationally and still speaks with the same clipped tones of an African native he has now represented, as of right, Great Britain for many years.
It is indisputable to say though that Froomey, as he is known, doesn’t have anywhere near the adulation from the British public as Sir Mo despite the fact that his sporting achievements are comparable. What is the difference? Why does one sportsman receive almost universal hero status amongst Britons whilst another just a grudging nod of admiration?
It could validly be argued that whilst Froome has never resided in Britain for any period of time Sir Mo spent his formative years in and around East London. It could be, but that doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Farah’s residence has now for a number of years been on the west coast of the United States.
You might suggest that cycling isn’t the same universal sport as athletics, that it takes a ‘real’ native born Brit to break through in that arena. You could argue that but then again no-one is seen as more British than Sir Bradley Wiggins, a man born in Belgium to an Australian father and British mother.
No, there is undoubtedly something almost intangible that makes us react in different ways to foreign born British sportsmen and women; and it isn’t necessarily just whether they win or not that makes us see them as countrymen or competing under a flag of convenience.
Look at the list. No-one but no-one would ever doubt the Britishness of John Barnes, Andrew Strauss, Mike Catt or Justin Rose and yet if I were to ask the nationality of Owen Hargeaves, Greg Rusedski, Lennox Lewis, Zola Budd or Kevin Pietersen I can guarantee that I would hear many times over that the answer was three Canadians and two South Africans.
So what is it that makes us adopt some sportsmen as compatriots more than others? You can’t even suggest it’s a funny, foreign sounding, name; I’m sure the vast majority of us would agree Chris Froome sounds far more traditionally British than Mo Farah.
In preparing for this week’s column I kept asking myself the same question. What makes someone more ‘British’ than the next man or woman?
I’m sure that you will have heard that for the past few years all schools have been instructed to teach children the concept of ‘fundamental British values’ and I asked myself whether they could answer my query?
According to Ofsted there are five such values that all of us should share; a respect for democracy; a respect for the rule of law; individual liberty; mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.
It is the final point where I believe the answer to my query lies. That mutual respect is as its very wording indicates a reciprocal agreement. It isn’t just about the respect that we show for sportsmen and women but the respect and passion that they show back for our nation.
Every time Sir Mo Farah runs and wins you can see how incredibly proud he is to be draped in that union flag; the passion that John Barnes displayed in playing for his adopted country irrespective of the hideous racial abuse he faced in the 1980s and ‘90s; the pride that Strauss or Catt displayed each time they pulled on their England jerseys to captain our nation.
Undoubtedly we at least subliminally grade our own respect in the degree of passion shown. There’s little doubt that Kevin Pietersen was and is one of the finest batsman in cricket but did we ever accept him as English? The answer to that was fairly self-evident the moment allegations of passing team secrets to South Africa surfaced.
Of course, if I am right, and the level of acceptance and adulation is linked to passion and mutual respect there is one fundamental problem and it perhaps affects Chris Froome more than any other sportsman I have mentioned today.
Froome, by all accounts, isn’t as extrovert as those we take to our hearts are. If stories are to be believed here is a man who is passionate about representing his county but for all his peerless skills as a cyclist simply doesn’t have the personality to show it.
A few weeks ago a sportswoman broke into the national consciousness following her first rate performance at Wimbledon. Johanna Konta was born in Australia and represented that nation until the year 2012 when she started representing Great Britain. The question now is whether and how we take her to our hearts.
I can tell by now you are asking how this relates to a Catholic newspaper and the point I want to make today is this. Being British isn’t as simple as five characteristics; it’s much more complicated than that. In all likelihood there are as many different strains of being British as there are people in our nation. Just because someone is less outgoing or more reserved doesn’t make them any less British.
I am sure, just like in other walks of life, some sportsmen and women take up British nationality as a convenience, whilst others do so because they feel fundamentally attached to our nation.
Surely our Britishness is about ignoring their possible motivations and welcoming and embracing them just the same?
Leon Spence is a county, district and parish councillor (Lab). Follow him on twitter @cllrleonspence.
Picture: Mo Farah with the Gold Medal for the 10,00m Men’s final, during day one of the 2017 IAAF World Championships at the London Stadium. (Adam Davy/PA).