How can we get excited about ‘plastic Brits’ in Team GB?

In just over two weeks’ time, amid much pomp and ceremony, the ‘Greatest Show On Earth’ will commence.

Love it or hate it, you’ll find it hard to avoid the London Olympics – especially as there is a three-line whip for the national media to attempt to brainwash us into thinking we actually care about handball, weightlifting and synchronised swimming.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So say the volunteer zombies speaking the gospel according to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG).

I should hope so, given the fact that the Games is costing £11 billion (About four times what they said it would back when London was successful in its bid).

I certainly wouldn’t want British taxpayers having to stump up that sort of money every four years.

We’d be doing a Greece/Spain/Italy (insert as appropriate) before you know it.

Never mind. It’s not as if that £11 billion could have been spent on anything more important, is it?

Like improving the NHS or saving 20,000 Army jobs…

No, much better to spend £11 billion on a two and a half-week vanity exercise which will do nowt but regenerate a deprived bit of the capital and has created legions of non-jobs.

Let’s forget, for a moment, the fact that the Olympics is a massive corporate monster.

Let’s turn a blind eye to the over-zealous security measures which led to armed police surrounding a bag containing an electronic cigarette and bully-boys wrestling small children off their bicycles if they get too close to the Olympic Torch parade.

Let’s set aside the bizarre ticketing arrangements and pretend that we buy into this idea that London 2012 is an event for the whole nation.

Let’s kid ourselves into thinking that there will indeed be a huge surge in the numbers of children playing sport as a result of watching Greco-Roman wrestling and other things which can, at best, be described as niche.

Let’s set aside the questionable selection process which has led to a world number one-ranked athlete being left out of Team GB because his face doesn’t fit while a former drug-cheat is given the green light.

But I would suggest there’s still a problem with giving Team GB your whole-hearted support later this month.

You see, quite a few of our athletes aren’t actually, er… British at all.

In the same way that Kevin Pietersen (KP) and Jonathan Trott, of our all-conquering test cricket team aren’t technically English.

Or, seeing as how we all love tennis for a nanosecond, the way Canadian Greg Rusedski was Britain’s number one not so long ago. Other sports, such as rugby union, are just as guilty, of course.

Yes, Team GB has ‘borrowed’ quite a few of its athletes from other nations.

This has led to the accusation that we are fielding ‘plastic Brits’ – one which I find hard to disagree with.

It will certainly be interesting listening to the commentators trying to whip up a bit of patriotic ferver when our league of nations of adopted runners, jumpers, cyclists and wrestlers do their thing.

We have, in no particular order: the not very British-sounding Olga Butkevych – a Ukrainian wrestler; 400-metre runners Michael Bingham and Shana Cox from the U.S. – along with hurdler Tiffany Porter; Yamile Aldama, representing us in the triple jump, is from Cuba; cyclist Philip Hindes is from Germany; and last, but by no means least, long jumper Shara Proctor is from the Caribbean island of Anguilla (which I had to look up). Meanwhile, the British handball team has almost 20 foreign-born players. Ten of Team GB’s basketball players were born overseas while nine of ‘our’ volleyball team were.

Team GB chief Andy Hunt has emphatically denied there are any ‘plastic Brits’.

Well he would, wouldn’t he?

He said: “Everyone who will compete for Team GB has a British passport and has fulfilled all the eligibility criteria and I’m totally satisfied around that.”

But how can we truly get behind the notion of Team GB when we know full well that many of its competitors are only here by dint of marriage or because they give our slim medal hopes a boost?

You see, when KP or Trotty score a century for England I don’t quite feel the warm glow I get when Englishmen Alistair Cook or Ian Bell achieve the same feat.

So I know exactly how I’ll feel if American Tiffany Porter – laughably named captain of our athletics team – makes it on to the podium.

None of this is new, of course. Eighties throw-back yours truly well remembers the furore over bear-footed South African Zola Bud wearing the red, white and blue.

Frankly, this sort of thing is a nonsense.

It makes a mockery of international sport and renders the medals table meaningless.

Personally, I’d rather see inferior athletes born and bred in this country competing at the highest level of whatever sport it may be rather than foreigners shipped in as a way of massaging our standing and justifying the largesse of our Olympics extravaganza.

If Britain can’t produce top class athletes across the various sporting disciplines then I would suggest it is the bodies in charge of those sports in this country who need to take a long, hard look at themselves.

The answer surely isn’t to turn Team GB into some sort of foreign legion flying flags of convenience in the hope that it brings in a few more golds, silvers and bronzes.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel


Verity’s still radio Ga Ga 30 years after her debut on BBC Radio Stoke

Verity Williams, as she was, was seven the first time she rang in to BBC Radio Stoke.

She wanted the presenter – a certain Jack Ward – to play a song for her: Love Me For A Reason by The Osmonds.

However, Mr Ward – a firm favourite of Verity’s nan – was having none of it and instead treated her to The Old Rugged Cross.

Amazingly, she wasn’t put off for life and at the age of 14 it was her prowess with a pen that earned her a part-time job with the station in Cheapside, Hanley, in 1981.

Verity said: “I actually wanted a job working in a shop but I was too young so my nan suggested I wrote to Radio Stoke. She was an avid listener to Jack Ward.

“My handwriting was very neat, apparently, and the bosses at the station were obviously impressed because they let me go in on Saturdays and answer the telephones and write down music requests from listeners. There were no computers back then, of course.”

It was another local legend – Bruno Brookes – who really gave Verity the bug for radio.
She said: “Bruno was wonderful to work with – such a lovely man who had a great way with all the people he met.

“However, he had a bit of a problem with his time-keeping. He would always turn up a bit late for his show which meant I ended up opening up the station, handling the switch over from Radio Two, introducing the first couple of records, and holding the fort for him. I would have been about 15 at the time.”

Back then it was records too – none of this digital playlist mullarky which yours truly enjoyed the benefit of when I did my first two shows on BBC Radio Stoke at Easter.

Verity, surname now Hilton and aged 45 and living in Bucknall, explained: “All music was chosen by the listeners or the presenters. The lazy presenters would just use the pile of records left by their colleagues while others did proper research in the old gram library.”

This autonomy meant each show sounded different – depending on the preferences of the presenters and their audience.

Verity said: “When the music began to be chosen by computers this was certainly more efficient and made it easier to put shows together. But it also gave the station a very definite ‘sound’, as the same type of tunes were heard with more regularity.”

It was 1984 when Verity began working for BBC Radio Stoke full-time and she worked for the station on and off until 2000, as well as enjoying stints as a researcher for BBC Breakfast television and as the Beeb’s producer for the Stoke-on-Trent Garden Festival.

She said: “In the 80s local radio really was all about the local audience. There were an awful lot of local people involved and there was a great sense of community.

“There wasn’t so much regional input into shows as there seems to be today. It was very much about what was happening locally.

“Even the local commercial station – Signal – was of the same mindset and they became a great rival for a time.”

Verity is perhaps best know for her work with partner Sam Plank – real name Terry Hilton – whom she went on to marry, but she also enjoyed working with many other well-known names such as the late Bill Humphreys and Mel Scholes, Grant Leighton – who now works in the U.S. – and my mate Pete Conway.

But what was it that made Sam Plank so special and so loved by locals that, at one time, one in three listeners to local radio in North Staffordshire was listening to his show?

Verity said: “I think the station bosses saw something in Sam back when he was working for the council and he would drop in and try to get publicity for various things.

“He was very chatty – a real people person. I remember once he was sent off down to London on a training course and they told him he should refer to the Stoke-on-Trent North MP as Ms Walley.

“Sam said: ‘If I start calling Joan ’Ms Walley’ then she’ll have to call me ‘Mr Plank’. Dunna be daft’.

“That, in a way, was his charm. He just wanted to talk to people – to hear about their lives. He would play daft games like asking listeners what was in his cup. He didn’t really want them to say what was in the cup – he just wanted them to ring in so he could have a chat with them.”

Technology may have changed local radio in the past 30 years, but nothing has diminished Verity’s enthusiasm for it.

She said: “I still love it. I still get a real buzz whenever I’m on air. It’s a great feeling and a real privilege.”