Olympic Free Agency (An Idea Whose Time Has Not Come, Apparently)

by Peter Spiro

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!


8 Responses

  1. Are you in favor of “post nationalism” or something? Oh, right.  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=901754

  2. Hey,
    Interesting piece particularly because you adopt such an individual centric approach by worrying about (and citing effective examples of) particularly good athletes left sitting at home by the current system. However, if you are looking at it from the individual’s viewpoint why just the athlete’s? What about the viewer sitting at home rooting for his country. Wouldn’t he prefer to root for a national? Wouldn’t he rather the person wearing a jersey based on the colors of his flag bear that flag as his own?
    Secondly, if you do away with nationality requirements (or citizenship – your understanding of the difference is clearly better than mine) what sense is there in statements like Team France or Team USA. It would only identify the taxpayers who are footing the bill for the sporting exercise of people that they don’t necessarily have much nexus with.

  3. Conor, As far as fan interests go, they would be enhanced (as an aggregate matter) insofar as the athlete talent base weren’t artificially confined (the #3 Chinese/world ping pong player, who as things are gets excluded, presumably making for a suboptimal competition).

    As far as fan interest goes, it’s probably true that all things being equal, fans will be more likely to root for a team composed of fellow citizens. But here’s where the club sports model comes in: we manage to root for our home teams even if no player hails from the home city. Why wouldn’t the same be true in the Olympics? Imagine a Team USA that’s mostly Americans but has a few key non-Americans thrown in for added strength. I think folks would be as enthusiastic about that teams as they would be about a purely American one – maybe more so, if it turns a losing team into a winning one.

  4. For what it is worth, I think Peter’s idea is interesting, but perhaps for a different reason — some people are interested in the game itself, and the nationality of the team is irrelevant. Obviously there are different groups, but quickly:
    1. There will be some people uninterested in sport at all. So, they can ignore the debate over Peter’s idea and go on teaching constitutional law.
    2. There are those who root for the home team, and would prefer a win above a good game. I have never understood this group, but I guess someone needs to do national security law.
    3. Finally, there are those of us who prefer the quality of the game over the outcome. I would much rather watch a high quality game and have ‘my team’ (a loose concept at best if I am not playing on that team) lose than watch a boring match where one side soundly trumps the other. It is for this group that I believe Peter’s idea has most merit — the public international law lawyers .

  5. Ian, Thanks for the typology. Now we just need a cartoon to illustrate.

  6. The Claude Giroux example doesn’t work.  Hockey players are selected by a GM, they don’t qualify in the same way individual athletes do.  Plus it’s not “unfortunate” that he can’t play for another country “who would love to have him” because team sports ARE about competition between nations.

  7. One advantage, one disadvantage…
    Richer countries would be more inclined to “invest” in the best foreign athletes if they could compete under their flag. This would certainly be good for athletes from poorer countries.
    However, this would probably mean that all best athletes from poorer countries would be entering the Olympics under the flag of some richer countries. This would certainly be bad for the nationals of poor countries who would stand little change of ever seeing their countries get any medals.
    One may want post-nationalism, but post-nationalism is still not here. Even dual citizens usually identify more with one nationality than the other… As it happens to me.

  8. Dear Peter,
    Thanks for your answer – interesting points both.Perhaps slightly paternalistic regarding fan interest considering that a grand majority, of the potentially very unrepresentative, sample are opposed?! 
    Congratulations on your NY Times quote the other day. 

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.