Olympic Free Agency (An Idea Whose Time Has Not Come, Apparently)
I have a piece up on Slate arguing that the Olympics should no longer require competitors to have the nationality of the country for which they compete.
A journalist friend of mine once told me, “Don’t ever read the comments. Just don’t.” Misguidedly thinking that Slate readers were somehow exempt from the laws of the internet, I made that mistake. Maybe 10 to 1 against. A lot of ad hominem stuff. (To this one, really, I’m not such a bad guy.) Doesn’t everyone know that we academics are supposed to play the role of the court jester, saying things that other people can’t?
On the substantive side, two responses:
1) The seemingly reflexive opposition to eliminating nationality requirements (“I’m not even going to read this piece”) takes no account of athlete interests. If you’re the number three player in China, you’re probably also the number three player in the world, but because of the two-competitor per-country quota in singles table tennis, you don’t get to compete. That seems unfair.
Restrictions on transfer of nationality are in some ways worse. The Olympic Charter requires a three-year cooling-off period when an athlete wants to compete for another country (waivable at the discretion of the country of origin). Sporting federation rules add another layer, sometimes extreme. Soccer and basketball prohibit transfers altogether. Once you’ve played for one country at the international level you cannot play for any other. That looks to me like a human rights problem, a kind of modern-day feudalism.
2) A number of commenters suggest my proposal will lead to corporate teams rather than national ones. I’m not suggesting (for now) that the Olympics abandon the state-based orientation, for team sports at least, just that individual players not be required to have citizenship in the country whose team they’re playing for.
But the role of corporate sponsorship is implicated here. It might be part of the answer. To the extent that the Jamaican bobsled team attracts a lot of attention, corporations should be interested in footing training bills in a way that Jamaica the state may not be. A big part of the charm is that the team is labeled as Jamaican. Corporations will have an interest in backing teams not just from the United States and other big countries. (Here is an example from Sochi involving tiny Tonga, though perhaps not one to be emulated.)
Regardless of nationality rules, we seem to be moving towards corporate sponsorship in any case. Would that be the end of the world? In Korea, baseball teams sport the name of companies not cities (and the fans are astonishingly fanatic). To the extent companies had their name on Olympic scorecards, they might be even more generous with their teams, with athletes and fans as the ultimate beneficiary. But I mean this as a THOUGHT EXPERIMENT ONLY, so please, no need for negative responses below!