<< The Body Politic

Olympic citizenship

Monday, July 30th, 2012

With the Olympic Games now in full swing, The New York Times has posed a great question about the role of citizenship and the Olympics: “Are we allowing too many athletes to game the citizenship requirement in order to play in the Olympics?”

Currently, for athletes to participate in the Olympics, they must hold citizenship in the country for which they compete. But many athletes–like American Becky Hammon who plays basketball for Russia or Yamile Aldama, a triple jumper who has competed in the games for Cuba (2000), Sudan (2004), and now Great Britain–have become citizens of another country for the express purpose of being able to compete in the Olympics. As Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University, notes in the Times, “The Gulf states have acquired African distance runners with promises of stipends for life. In preparation for the 2000 games, Qatar pretty much bought the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team.”

Spiro argues that this athlete trading will increase the competitiveness of the Olympics by allowing the best athletes to compete.  For example, China’s Xu Xin, the world’s third-highest ranked table tennis player, will not be competing in London because China can only send two players to the singles event–and the world’s first- and second-highest ranked players are also Chinese. Spiro writes:

It’s not clear why these curiosities [of athlete trading for the Olympics] should bother us. Think domestic professional sports, in which players are bought and sold as a matter of course. We don’t care if our baseball players have prior emotional attachments to the cities for which they play. Why should Olympic competition be any different?

Despite the Olympic Charter’s language that “The Olympic Games are competition between athletes…and not between countries,” there has always been a component of national pride and identity to the Games, beginning at the opening ceremony where the athletes enter the Games not solely as individuals but as members and representatives of the country that sent them. This is the case that Lopez Lomong, who carried the American flag into the 2008 Beijing opening ceremony, makes:

As a “Lost Boy” of Sudan, having spent 10 years of my life in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to America at the age of 16, I felt lost without a country. I never identified with any flag; instead, I was an outcast from a country at war.

In 2000, while a refugee, I saw Michael Johnson run the 400 meters in the Olympics. My world was shaken when he shed a tear during the playing of the national anthem. I realized that he didn’t run for himself or his own glory, but rather represented a country that he was proud of.

The Olympics is the ultimate show of national pride and identity. For me, competing in the Olympic games has been an opportunity to thank a country that opened its arms to me 11 years ago, showing me that I mattered.


[W]hen athletes compete solely for personal glory, the purpose of the Games is undermined. After receiving my American citizenship in 2007, despite the odds against me and the challenges I faced, it was not an option to run under another flag. I had been accepted into a country that I was proud of and, for the first time in my life, I had an identity. In 2008, as the team flag bearer, I realized the importance of the Olympic spirit — to unite the world’s athletes and proudly represent their countries in peace.

I’m honored to be an ambassador for the United States as I travel to compete with the world’s greatest athletes and bring home Gold!