On 29 April 2017, Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua defeated Wladimir Klitschko by a technical knockout in front of an audience of 90,000 to become the IBF, WBA and IBO World Heavyweight Champion. As a result of his victory, Joshua, a hugely talented athlete, has now become one of the most popular figures in Britain.
As patriots adopt Joshua, they conveniently airbrush his Nigerian heritage from the narrative. Joshua was born in Watford to Nigerian parents who moved to the UK when they were in their twenties. Joshua regards himself as “Nigerian by blood” and has a tattoo of the map of Nigeria on his arm. When he was much younger, he was known by his first name Femi. Perhaps like many people of colour whose names people find “too difficult to pronounce”, he might have opted to be called Anthony Joshua to save friends from biting their tongues while pronouncing “Oluwafemi.”
In a society that revels in the demonisation of young men who look like Anthony Joshua – a 6 ft 6 athletic black man who weighs 108 kg, the new enthusiasm for the athlete feels incongruous. Under everyday circumstances, anyone walking the streets of most British cities looking like Joshua would be under severe scrutiny. At the very best he would notice people holding onto their belongings as he enters the lift, and at the very worst, he might be stopped by the police working on a tip-off about a “suspicious looking man” walking around the neighbourhood. Fortunately for Joshua, he is the exception.
Thus far the boxer has avoided controversy – but what would happen if that should change? In January 2017 Joshua posted an image of himself praying along with friends at a mosque in Dubai. In response to this tweet, Joshua was lambasted by some of his fans. Someone wrote on Twitter:
@anthonyfjoshua Get Out Of My Country Right Now @mrsmay deport this muslamic.
There’s precedent for what happens when high-profile people of colour start to express their identities. When Lewis Hamilton won his first Formula One title, he became Britain’s most loved sporting son. However, as he began to express his blackness, he became a hate figure and the British public that initially sang his praise began to slate him.
White capital has a long history of making money off the backs of black folks, so it should be no surprise to see the scramble to convert Joshua to a money making machine. In the build-up to and following his match against Klitschko, the British media have been making the case for Joshua’s potential to be a billionaire.
Joshua wouldn’t be the first black British sporting star touted to be a billionaire. Shortly after Lewis Hamilton became the first black man to win Formula One, the Evening Standard published “Is Lewis Hamilton on track to be our first sporting billionaire?” Dominic Curran, a Director at one of Britain’s top sponsorship agencies Synergy said:
Lewis is a sponsor’s dream. He is the epitome of youth, vibrancy and success. Any brand would want to associate with that because it shifts product.
While corporate Britain is often reluctant to employ young black people and turns a blind eye to racism in the workplace, its executives have no problem and no shame queuing in front of the likes of Joshua and Hamilton to put their faces to use.
Black sports stars are easily dropped when they fall short of expectations. When Ben Johnson was caught doping in the aftermath of his Olympic 100m victory, he morphed from the Canadian fastest man in the world to the Jamaican-born cheat. The same theme played out in France when the French national football team comprising predominately of Arab and African descent Bleus won the 1998 FIFA World Cup. The team was hailed as a model for multiculturalism. However, as the performance of the football team began to dip post-2000, racism began to rear its ugly head and the patriotism of the black and Arab players in the team was called into questioned by the media, politicians and fans.
So what makes a British sports star? Is it ancestry, birth, colour, residency, passport, wealth, fame or accent?
It seems that in sports that evasive Britishness is just a victory away, but people of colour who consider themselves included by virtue of any of the above mentioned factors need to realise they are just one mistake, one controversy or one crime away from pseudo denaturalisation.
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Ahmed Sule is a CFA Charterholder, Chartered Accountant, photojournalist and social critic. He also obtained a Certificate in Photojournalism at the University of Arts London. He has also worked on various photojournalism projects including Obama: The Impact, Jesus Christ: The Impact, The Williams Sisters etc. He cites Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Kwame Nkrumah and W.E. Du Bois as his major influences. Find him on Twitter @Alatenumo