Citizenship and the Olympics: The End of Surrogate Warfare

by Peter Spiro

We don’t insist that our major-league ball players come from the cities that they play for. Why should we demand any more from Olympic athletes?

The Beijing Games includes more athletes with tenuous ties to the country whose flag they followed into Friday’s opening ceremonies. There are some who have jumped states in search of better-funded Olympic programs. Others couldn’t make the grade in their home states, and play on eligibility in countries where they can.

Russia has been pretty aggressive in recruiting athletes who have no organic connection to the country. Becky Hammon doesn’t speak Russian and has no Russian ancestors. Solely on the basis of her contract with a Russian women’s basketball team, she was extended citizenship for the purpose of competing on the Russian team in Beijing. Same thing with J.R. Holden, who’s suiting up with the Russian men’s team.

Dozens of other American athletes have discovered that a parent’s, grandparent’s, or even great-grandparent’s birthplace in countries like Germany, Greece, Singapore, and Mexico can open the door to Olympic competition. Haley Nemra of Marysville, Washington, has never been to the Marshall Islands, for whom she’ll be competing in the 800 meters in Beijing. Likewise, University of Michigan senior Adam Harris met up with the Guyana squad for the 200 meters, even though he’s never visited the country itself.

Under Rule 42 of the Olympic Charter, a competitor must be a national of the country he or she is representing. Where an athlete holds more than one nationality, she can play for either. Under a bye-law to the rule, where the athlete has represented one country in regional or world competition, she has to wait three years thereafter before switching to the another. That waiting period can be waived by the national Olympic committee of the first country. Most countries don’t seem to act on the sour grapes, but see examples here and here of athletes who aren’t in Beijing on the objection of his native land.

International sporting federations add another layer. Swimmers, for instance, must have a year’s residence in the country they play for prior to the competition. Under rule H.2.3.3 of the internal regulations of the International Basketball Federation, national teams are limited to one player who acquired nationality through naturalization. (I guess Russia can’t make its teams all-American!) Once you play for a national basketball team after the age of 17, you can’t switch to another. Same thing for table tennis, with 21 as the cutoff. Under articles 15-18 of FIFA’s Statutes, eligibility to play on a national soccer team requires Nottebohm-like genuine links (ancestry, birth, or residence) on top of formal citizenship. The layering of citizenship rules beyond states themselves gives rise to the concepts of “sporting nationality” and “athletic citizenship“.

Even with these barriers to movement, Americans who compete for other countries have drawn editorial fire. At best, the argument runs, they are exploiting flags of convenience. At worst, they are condemned as playing-field traitors, ready to turn against their native-land out of self-interest. Of course, the U.S. benefits from the many naturalized citizens on its teams. Even that phenomenon is lamented by some — see this piece complaining that the US ping pong team has been “outsourced” to atheletes born in China.

Now some of you will know that I’m not exactly bullish on citizenship as an institution. I don’t think I’m any more enamored of the athletic version. For starters, although I understand the impulse to maintain the national identities of Olympic teams, it’s probably a lost cause. Top athletes, after all, are transnational elites. At that level, there’s too much back and forth these days.

Basketball’s rule against naturalized citizens would be the only effective way to keep teams indigenous. But even that’s leaky — someone like German Chris Kaman counts as native born on the basis of great-grandparents, even though, he, too, had never been to his “homeland” before joining the basketball team he lead to victory earlier today. And it’s hardly fair to those who end up living somewhere other than their birthplace for reasons unrelated to sport. “Genuine link” approaches won’t do much good, either; the thresholds (like residence) aren’t difficult to satisfy with a little foresight.

So we’re left with an Olympics in which competitor identity is increasingly detached from national identity. That may not be such a bad thing. It doesn’t detract from rooting for the home team. I can be a big Phillies fan even if none of the players lives in Philadelphia, much less were born here.

And in some ways it may be a positive development, or at least evidence of positive developments in the relations of states. It would have been unthinkable for an American to play for the Soviet Union. Today, playing for Russia may still bother some people, but most are taking it in stride. Why the change? The Olympics used to be a form of surrogate warfare. If we couldn’t beat the Soviets on the battlefield, we could best them in the rink. Athletes were soldiers, of a sort. As such, their nationality was serious stuff.

For the most part states don’t stand in an adversarial posture any more. Their teams may, but more now in the way of the Phillies and the Mets, competitive but a healthy way. This should be counted as another welcome departure from the pathologies of Westphalia.

http://opiniojuris.org/2008/08/10/citizenship-and-the-olympics-the-end-of-surrogate-warfare/

6 Responses

  1. The idea that the Olympics should be a competition among nations is a perversion both of the original Greek Olympic ideal and of its revival. In the early days of the modern Olympics, teams did not necessarily represent countries: some represented private sports clubs. At the Paris Olympics, Australian Stan Rowley competed in some events for Australia and in others for Britain. A return to the original Olympic ideal would be a positive development.

  2. Bill, Thanks for the history.  Along the lines of private sports clubs, the next evolution here may be corporate squads, like the team from Home Depot.

  3. Response… I’m praying that we’ll never see “corporate squads,” however prescient the speculation, as it would only represent the complete colonization of social life by the TNCs of late capitalism (in Mandel’s sense) in our postmodernist (in Jameson’s sense) world.

  4. Response…
    The Olympic Charter states that ‘‘[t]he Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events, and not between countries.’’ Chap. 1, ¶9. This raises at least two questions: 1) In reality, is this an accurate characterization?; and 2) Is this objective furthered when the sports media list medal counts by country and promote a strong spirit of nationalism?

  5. Matt,  Good point.  On the other hand, the Olympic movement is clearly organized on statist premises.  Under the Charter, National Olympic Committees “have the exclusive authority for the representation of their respective countries at the Olympic Games.”  It would probably take some sort of sporting revolution to break that monopoly.

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