POSTED: December 21st 2011

NEIL WILSON: Let's rid the Olympics of the sporting ringers

Olympic Park is getting ready for the countdown / LOCOG
Olympic Park is getting ready for the countdown / LOCOG

THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An exclusive, authoritative series from Sports Features Communications

LONDON: ONE of the winning points of Sebastian Coe’s bid for the 2012 Olympic Games to come to London was his promise that the youth of the world would be inspired to take up sport. Well, not many of them as it happens, at least in his own country.

Sport England, the government body promoting participation, has admitted that its target of a million extra people participating by 2012 will not be met. Only 111,000 more people since 2007 are participating, 89% below target, and most of those are doing nothing more than jogging.

How many of them were enthused by the promise of an Olympics in Britain cannot be calculated.  What can be is the number drawn from abroad to sport in the UK by a Games in London.

One British newspaper has tagged them ‘plastic Brits’. There are many among its handball team and several more in track and field.

Among Britain’s wrestlers now are men and women who came originally from the Ukraine as sparring partners for Britons. Now they have ousted Britons from the team by taking its nationality themselves. Five have married Britons which improves their chances of receiving UK passports in time.

Even international federations are becoming upset. Raphael Martinetti, president of FILA, said: “Athletes have come from Ukraine and other countries but that leaves no legacy from the Games. I think it’s not good for the country.”

Some plastic Brits chose the UK because it offered an easier avenue to selection than their previous country. Others because the UK offers greater financial support for potential Olympians. None, probably, can sing its national anthem or could explain the composition of its national flag. It is merely a flag of convenience.

Britain is not alone in accepting sport’s wandering minstrels.  The Olympic teams of the Gulf states will be full next year of such Africans paid to run under a different flag who cannot sing anthems or speak its languages. Ethiopians are running for Turkey, many from former Soviet bloc countries for Australia.

Once upon a time, at the first three Modern Olympics, athletes were not entered by nations. Baron de Coubertin, the Games’ founder, did not see the national concept as an important strut of Olympics. Athletes entered themselves.

When that changed, nationality immediately marred the proceedings. In 1908 the Americans fell out spectacularly with the British, causing a diplomatic incident. The Nazis used Olympic sport to collaborate a racial theory; the Soviets to prove communism better than capitalism, the East Germans to show they were better than West Germans.

Nations like Britain and Japan forced athletes of countries they occupied to compete under their flags. And now sports like athletics allow entry to athletes who failed to reach the required standard to participate merely so more countries may be present, an insult to those athletes who have trained for years to reach that standard.

Nationalism is a plague on sport but while it is tolerated, the International Olympic Committee should make doubly sure that the Olympics is free of sporting ringers. Four years and one Olympics should be the minimum cooling off period, however anybody has acquired a passport.

NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.

Keywords · London 2012 · Sport England · Seb Coe · Neil Wilson

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