Mike Rowbottom

The front page of today’s copy of The National - "the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland" - shows an exuberant, pink-jerseyed cyclist hoisting aloft the trophy marking victory in the Giro d’Italia.

For Tao Geoghegan Hart, of the Ineos Grenadiers team, it was an unexpected triumph - and one which has been claimed for Scotland by the publication in question, whose headline reads: "Scot seals shock Giro d’Italia title triumph."

As the acclaimed sports journalist and author Richard Moore remarked on Twitter, "this is known in the trade as ‘putting a kilt on it'".

Geoghegan Hart was born in Holloway and brought up in Hackney. He’s what you would call a Londoner. But his father, Tom, is a builder with Scottish and Irish ancestry, and the name "Tao" means "Tom" in Irish Gaelic.

So Scotland has a claim on this 25-year-old rising talent. And Ireland has at least an equal claim…

Scaling down from national to local level, the Hackney Gazette should by rights be all over this story. Geoghegan Hart, who was featured by the paper back in 2011 - "Hart vows to come back after his European Youth Olympic disappointment" - is a ticket to ride over the next few years for those beleaguered local journalists still allowed to write about local people and events.

It was a far more comfortable and comforting profession to be a local journalist when I was learning my trade - yes, yes, we never stop learning, thank you - on papers in Bishop’s Stortford and Harlow.

Then, as now, it was the task of any self-respecting local reporter to do the equivalent of "putting a kilt" on any news, sporting or otherwise, that could be construed within parish or regional boundaries.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, when British tennis player John Lloyd was in his pomp - with a pomp peak of the Australian Open final in 1977 - his local paper fully enjoyed its annual free ride to Wimbledon, Roland Garros, Melbourne Park, Forest Hills and Flushing Meadows with the simple opening sentence: "Leigh-on-Sea superstar John Lloyd…"

That was the formula. Thus I was able to write about the 1980 Moscow Olympics because Britain’s 20-year-old Louise Miller, who was 11th in the women’s high jump final with 1.85 metres having qualified with 1.88m, came from Saffron Walden, which was notionally - although not substantially - within our "patch".


Sally Gunnell's Essex connections meant she was an editorial ticket-to-ride for local papers as she established herself as an Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth 400 metres hurdles champion ©Getty Images
Sally Gunnell's Essex connections meant she was an editorial ticket-to-ride for local papers as she established herself as an Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth 400 metres hurdles champion ©Getty Images

A more enterprising friend and colleague on another Essex newspaper managed to cover the 1986 European Athletics Championships in Stuttgart on the back of the local connection of a high hurdler who had won the Commonwealth title a month earlier. That was Sally Gunnell, who would go on to amass Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth gold medals over 400 metres hurdles. Fair play.

Somewhat randomly, I’ve just taken a gander at the Pinner Local site, where access to the world of pop music, tantrums and tiaras is perennially accessed through local lad Elton John, on the understanding that the piece must always include the words: "Elton, who attended Pinner Wood Junior School and Reddiford School, is reported to be..."

So Pinner, then, now and always owns a piece of Elton John. And Hackney can claim eternal connection with Tao Geoghegan Hart. (Even if the Gazette appears to need to get its skates on over the latest and biggest news manifestation so far.)

It’s an odd business, this permanent partial-stake in persons and events. When it comes to ownership, who does Geoghegan Hart belong to, ultimately? Himself, his family, his loved ones. Hackney. Holloway. London. England. Scotland. Ireland. Britain. The Ineos Grenadiers. World cycling. The world. The universe…

For a journalist, the scope of ownership shifts to match the assignment. Take the example of the 1980 Olympics. As a local paper reporter I could reasonably write about former Saffron Walden County High School pupil Louise Miller, 20. Had I been writing for a national paper, I would have been free to bask in the newsfest that was Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, that was Daley Thompson and Allan Wells.

Had I been an agency reporter, or working for the International Federation, my scope would have gone right across the national boundaries and I could have freely extolled the electric final sprints of Ethiopia’s Miruts Yifter, the 5,000 and 10,000 metres champion, the bustling combativeness of Poland’s bustling Bronislaw Malinowski, gold medallist in the 3,000m steeplechase, or the fluent grace of Italy’s winner of that women’s high jump, Sara Simeoni.

When it comes to national claims, as we have seen most recently with young Geoghegan Hart, boundaries can shift with bewildering effect.

Back in the days when Jack Charlton (British, English, Geordie) took over managership of the Ireland football team the flexible definition of who might be claimed for his purposes aroused much controversy.

Tao Geoghegan Hart won a thrilling Giro d'Italia ©Getty Images
Tao Geoghegan Hart won a thrilling Giro d'Italia ©Getty Images

Charlton merely made rational and highly successful use of a template already in existence whereby, under Irish law, anyone whose parent or grandparent was an Irish citizen was also entitled to Irish citizenship.

What was known irreverently as "the Granny Rule" helped Ireland reach the quarter-finals at the 1990 World Cup, and the last 16 in the 1994 World Cup.

More recently some sections of the English media in what used to be known as Fleet Street became energised over what it termed "plastic Brits" representing the country in athletics.

This controversy blew up shortly before the London 2012 Olympics, when the British team gained two female competitors born and raised in the United States but eligible to compete through having British parents.

Early in 2012 one of these athletes, Tiffany Porter, was challenged by a writer from that most British of organs, the Daily Mail, to sing the National Anthem. Had Porter known all the words of the ancient anthem, would that have proved her Britishness?

The tide of national opinion ebbs and flows. In the mid-1990s a Canadian tennis player, Greg Rusedski, emerged on the scene, initially wearing, for the sake of the tabloid British papers, a Union flag bandanna - a quintessentially un-British way of affirming a Britishness that was officially sanctioned by the fact that one of his parents was born in England.

In 1997, when he reached the final of the Australian Open and lost to home player Pat Rafter, the British public was sufficiently proud of him to vote him BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Rusedski may have been rather Canadian, but on that stifling day in Melbourne Park he lost for us. For Britain. And we thanked him for it.

Ultimately, it seems, claims on sportsmen and women are visceral as much as national.