Exactly one year on from the London riots, the UK is embracing two multicultural heroes: the Somali-born Mo Farah who won the men’s 10,000 metres on Saturday, and Jessica Ennis, queen of the heptathlon whose father is a painter and decorator originally from Jamaica. Already Farah and Ennis are being called role models. In a perfect world, their gold medals would change views about black and mixed race Britons. Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen.
On the face of it, Farah seems the perfect figure to challenge racist stereotypes about black British youths, and to offer those youths someone to emulate. In origin, he resembles many of the young black men from poor backgrounds who were disproportionately represented among the rioters. Farah – who came to Britain aged eight, was raised in tough Feltham, got into fights at school, and once jumped naked from a bridge into the river Thames after a night out – might have been one of them had life turned out differently. Instead he discovered discipline and running.
Sadly, his success and Ennis’s will probably serve only to confirm racist views of black people. The black person as athlete (or musician) is itself a longstanding racial stereotype. The Nazis dismissed the triumphs of the black American Jesse Owens at the Berlin Games of 1936 by saying he had animalistic physical gifts. Countless black athletes have succeeded since Owens. Their triumphs do not change stereotypes.
Nor does a nation’s embrace of black athletes always extend to blacks who do not win Olympic golds. The French victory in the football world cup of 1998 was widely hailed as the triumph of a multicoloured France. Michèle Tribalat, a demographer specialised in immigration, said the team had done “more for integration than years of political will“. The then French president Jacques Chirac eulogised “a tricoloured and multicoloured France“. Yet the team’s success did not stem the rise of the anti-immigrant Front National, or prevent the Paris riots of 2005. Black sporting success and black integration are two separate things.
Nobody knows quite what caused London’s riots, but anger at the police, unemployment, and poverty next door to endless consumer goods probably all played a role. With cuts in public spending and possibly a triple-dip recession in prospect, life in London’s poorest neighbourhoods is unlikely to improve soon. No gold medal will change that.