Michael Johnson: If the rules allow Plastic Brits in the Olympics then the rules are wrong
Michael Johnson, the 44-year-old American who holds a unique place in Olympic history as gold medallist over both 200m and 400m at the Atlanta Games of 1996, will add his fearless knowledge of his sport – and his rich tones – to the BBC’s coverage of London 2012 this summer.
But should certain members of the British team excel, then Johnson may well find it uncomfortable if he is expected to join in the acclaim.
For the man who handed back one of his five Olympic gold medals – won as a member of the United States 400m relay team in Sydney – after a team-mate admitted he had used performance-enhancing drugs, has taken a stand against the ‘Plastic Brits’, the athletes who have abandoned the countries of their birth to compete for Britain in London.
Hitting out: Michael Johnson will struggle to rejoice in Plastic Brits medal success
While Charles van Commenee, the Dutch-born performance director of Team GB’s athletics’ squad, has come under attack for selecting athletes whose affinity to Britain is open to question, Johnson says the blame lies with those competitors he believes exploit the rules – and with the rules themselves.
‘It’s hard to believe it when athletes who have tried to represent their country and couldn’t make that team turn round and claim that all along they wanted to represent Great Britain,’ said Johnson.
‘It’s a hard sell. They have to live with that. My country is the only country that I could represent. If that meant that I could not make an Olympic team, that’s what it meant.’
A Brit cheeky: Yamile Aldama will compete at 2012
Athletes caught up in the ‘Plastic Brits’ controversy include triple jumper Yamile Aldama, who has already competed for her native Cuba and Sudan – a flag of convenience for the Athens Olympics – and Americans Tiffany Porter, the 100m hurdler, and 400m runner Shana Cox, both of whom have switched their allegiance to Britain.
Porter, born in Michigan, holds British and American passports. She has an English mother and a Nigerian father but represented the United States as a junior.
Cox also has dual citizenship, as both her parents were born in Britain, although she was born in the US.
Triple jumper Julian Reid also wants to compete for Britain rather than his native Jamaica. He has held a British passport since birth although he made his mark in athletics as a university student in Texas.
Similarly , long-jumper Shara Proctor had never set foot in Britain until last year but she has been a British citizen since she was born in the British independent territory of Anguilla, in the Caribbean.
Athletics is not the only sport to come under fire for picking ‘Plastic Brits’. British wrestling’s seven-strong world-class performance squad includes three wrestlers from Ukraine and two from Bulgaria, while the Olympic handball teams will be selected from up to 41 players, of whom 25 were born or raised abroad.
Only Daniela Sposi, who has competed for her native Italy, had to apply for British citizenship, which she gained on the grounds of residency.
Johnson defends Van Commenee’s willingness to take advantage of the rules governing nationality in athletics.
‘Is he operating inside the rules of the sport Yes, he is,’ said Johnson. ‘It’s unfair to say to him, “You are allowed to do this under IAAF rules and other countries do it, but we don’t want you to do it”. And then to say, “But we do want you to bring home as many medals as you can”.
Giving something back: Johnson returned his 400m relay Olympic gold medal after a team-mate admitted he had used performance-enhancing drugs
‘You can’t fault Van Commenee for the selection of what you call “Plastic Brits”. That’s the pool he has to pick from and he’s going to pick the best athletes.
‘He has to. If not, he’d be discriminating by making a judgment that someone is a better Brit than somebody else. If you have a problem with athletes from other countries who don’t really have any connection with the UK, then target the rules; not Van Commenee.’
FIVE WHO SWITCHED TO BRITAIN
TIFFANY PORTER (100m hurdles)
BORN Michigan, United States
Ran as a junior for the US. Switched to GB in 2010. Holds dual nationality.
JULIAN REID (Triple jump)
BORN Kingston, Jamaica
Represented Jamaica at 2009 world championships, finishing 27th in qualifying round. Holds British passport.
YAMILE ALDAMA (Triple jump)
BORN Havana, Cuba
Second for Cuba at 1999 world championships. Married a Briton in 2001 and moved to UK. Tried for citizenship but delays meant she switched to Sudan for 2004 Olympics. Became British citizen in 2010.
DANIE LA SPOSI (Handball)
BORN Pontinia, Italy
Played for Italy as a junior and senior. Moved to GB for family reasons in 2005. Gained British citizenship in April 2011.
OLGA BUTKEVYCH (Wrestling)
Hoping to gain British citizenship on residency grounds in time for the London Olympics.
Johnson accepts that there are British athletes who have worked for years to win selection for London 2012 and will feel unjustly deprived by the emergence of rivals from foreign shores suddenly waving a British passport.
‘If I was a British athlete striving for selection for these Olympics and someone arrived to take my place, I wouldn’t be happy, no doubt about that,’ he said. ‘I think the rule should be that once you start to compete at senior level for a country, you have to compete for that country and no other.
'The athletes who have the ability, through a parent, or whatever, to choose between countries should have to make a lasting decision at that point.’
Last August, 24-year-old Porter ran the 100m hurdles for Britain in the World Championships in South Korea.
But a month previously she had revealed the depth of her affinity to Britain when she declared 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.’
What a Tweet: Tiffany Porter has done little to her hide her strong American feeling
Johnson’s view of the ‘Plastic Brits’ affair is moulded by his own integrity, shown when he handed back his 2000 relay gold medal after Antonio Pettigrew owned up to doping. Pettigrew killed himself in 2010 and Johnson suspects the shame of what he had done played a part in his suicide.
‘I was angry in the beginning, as for eight years I was a five-times Olympic champion,’ said Johnson. ‘Now I am just sad. Because, deep down, Antonio was still the good guy we always thought him to be — he felt so bad about what he’d done he couldn’t live with it.’
So does Johnson think athletes will be competing on a fair, level playing field in London ‘In society, you have good and bad people, right’ he said.
‘You are never going to have a society where there isn’t crime, and there is never going to be a day when nobody tries to cheat at sports. But, by and large, most people in society are good people; the same thing in sport.’