An American athlete set to represent Great Britain at the London Olympics has become embroiled in a political and social furor after refusing to recite the national anthem of her adopted country.
Tiffany Porter, a 100-meter hurdler from Ypsilanti, Mich., represented the United States at the junior level before switching allegiance in order to fulfill her dream of competing at an Olympics. This week she was named Great Britain's track and field team captain for the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, sparking a storm of outrage in England.
The British media has become increasingly critical of the so-called "plastic Brits" – athletes from other countries who alter their citizenship to be eligible to represent Great Britain in London – with many of them having their passport applications expedited to meet the relevant requirements.
While Porter, 24, does not fall into the latter category – she has an English mother and has held a British passport since childhood – her status as squad captain brought the matter to a head, and when she was challenged by a newspaper reporter to sing or speak the British anthem "God Save The Queen" at a news conference Thursday, she declined.
"I do know the first … I know the whole part of 'God Save The Queen,' " Porter replied. "But I am not known for my singing ability. I don't think that's necessary."
That comment prompted a fresh outcry in the London media, with athletes, the public and even politicians wading into the debate.
"If you are going to represent Britain at the Olympics, then I think it is sensible to know the words of the national anthem," said Member of Parliament and Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson. "I would say that would be even more necessary if you think you are going to win a medal. What I am against is giving special treatment to people simply to allow them to compete for this country."
The scandal is unfortunate for Porter, an amenable and hard-working athlete who won a hurdles bronze for USA at the world junior championships. She switched to the British side two years ago, once it became clear she was not good enough for the senior American team.
Porter has not broken any rules, but she has become an unwitting poster girl for a controversial policy.
"Growing up, my dream was to run for Great Britain," said Angie Thorp, who previously held the British women's 100-meter hurdles record before it was broken by Porter, to the Daily Mail. "Her 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."
Britain does this with other sports, too. Its Olympic women's wrestling team may feature two women from Ukraine, while England cricket star Kevin Pietersen was born and raised in South Africa. Even on the track, 10,000-meter medal hopeful Mo Farah was born in Somalia, while triple-jumper Yamile Aldama was born in Cuba and previously represented Sudan.
Other countries adopt a similar approach. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the former Soviet republic of Georgia was represented in beach volleyball by two Brazilians whose only trip to Georgia had been to accept their new passports. American teenager Allison Reed competed for Georgia in the ice-dancing competition at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Porter advanced to the semifinals of the 60-meter hurdles in Istanbul on Friday and attempted to brush off the controversy. "I'm focusing right now on competing, and I'm very excited to be here," she told the BBC. "I'm focusing on doing my best tomorrow and in the finals."
Track and field teams normally choose a captain only for major events, like these being held in Istanbul. But the concept seems to hold more weight in the U.K., where English teams of the past have been led by strong charismatic figures. England soccer captain Booby Moore still is revered as one of the nation's most important figures.
Porter was defended by a former captain, distance runner Helen Clitheroe.
"She gave a brilliant team speech last night and inspired us all," Clitheroe said. "I'm pretty sure if you asked the majority of the team they wouldn't know the words to the national anthem. I do, but it's not a requirement to be our team captain; it's about someone who you can look up to, follow and inspire us, and Tiffany's that person."
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