American-born athletes took center stage at the Beijing Winter Olympics – for the host country, that is, to elicit scrutiny over nationality change.
Eileen Gu, the prodigious — and, depending on who you ask, prodigal — freestyle skier who chose to compete for her mother’s native China rather than her native United States, has attracted critical coverage that has at times veered into racism and to misogyny.
But the likes of Gu and Jieruimi Shimisi — the Chinese team’s hockey goalie (with no known Chinese heritage) formerly known as Jeremy Smith — aren’t the first to don the colors of a country where they were not born. Mutable nationality has a long history in the Olympics and in sport more generally.
In an increasingly globalized society, is it any wonder that identity and nationality are fluid? Sport, after all, can be a great unifying factor of national identity, but also an expansive instrument for welcoming or achieving belonging.
Here’s a look at the inner workings of the competition for “another” country:
DO YOU HAVE TO BE A CITIZEN TO COMPETE FOR A COUNTRY?
Under the current Olympic Charter, yes. National Olympic Committees are responsible for the entry of competitors, and these competitors must be “a national” of the country of that NOC.
DOESN’T THAT MEAN YOU HAVE TO BE BORN IN A COUNTRY TO COMPETE?
Birthright citizenship is not a universal concept. The United States is one of the most prominent practitioners of jus soli, conferring citizenship on anyone born on American soil.
— Many countries use jus sanguinis — blood ties — in their criteria for citizenship. If you were born in France, for example, but your parents are not French, you can only obtain citizenship as a teenager.
— Naturalization is another route to citizenship. Two common ways to obtain naturalization are jus domicilii (meeting residency requirements) and jus matrimonii (marriage to a citizen). Tim Koleto, an American-born ice dancer representing Japan, is married to his Japanese skating partner, for example.
—If you are wealthy enough, you can also buy citizenship or at least a visa with a fast track to citizenship in some cases. Countries are also sometimes actively recruiting, such as China with its hockey team, although the details remain a mystery.
With each country having radically different citizenship requirements – some as loose as having only one grandparent born on its soil – it wouldn’t be out of the question for a potential competitor to have five passports.
SO WHAT IS THE CALCULATION BEHIND YOUR CHOICE OF COUNTRY?
It is a matter of opportunity and philosophy. If you’re a star player in a team sport, you’ll probably go for the country that has the best chance of winning. But if your main goal is just to get to the Olympics, you might find a clearer path through a country that isn’t a power.
There are also sponsorship deals and sentiments to consider. Gu is the star of Team China, while she would have been part of a group of telegenic and charismatic personalities like Chloe Kim if she had competed for the United States. And she has deep ties to China – she spent a lot of time here growing up, was raised by a Chinese mother, and is fluent in Mandarin.
In some cases, the pick doesn’t really feel like a pick: Bobsleigh star Kaillie Humphries quit Team Canada, claiming she was abused and harassed by her officials. She became an American citizen barely two months before the start of these Games.
ONCE YOU HAVE CHOSEN A COUNTRY, SHOULD YOU KEEP IT?
No. However, if you have represented a country internationally, you must wait three years before you can represent another at the Olympics. This waiting period may, however, be reduced or waived if all the National Olympic Committees concerned and the international sports federation concerned agree.
Freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy shot to fame at the 2014 Winter Olympics, where he won a silver medal as part of Team USA. This time around he is competing for Great Britain where he was born and where his mother is from (his father is American and Kenworthy grew up in the United States).
WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE WHO SEEM TO HAVE NO RELATION TO THE COUNTRY THEY ARE COMPETING FOR?
I see you’re interested in ice dancing. The discipline is teeming with couples, at least half of whom have tenuous, if any, ties to the country they compete for (although none of this year’s medal-winning couples had naturalized members). Ice dancing has always been dominated by a handful of countries, namely Russia (or its historical background), with strong performances from Canada, France, the United States and Great Britain. This means that if you want to get to the first rink, it may be up to you to acquire a new nationality.
Additionally, many ice dancers train together in Michigan or Canada, so pairs often include people of different nationalities. Ice dancers Nikolaj Sørensen and Laurence Fournier Beaudry used to compete for Sørensen’s native Denmark, but Fournier Beaudry was unable to acquire citizenship in time, so they moved on to represent his native Canada.
Simon Proulx-Sénécal used to compete for his native Canada, but moved to Armenia after teaming up with Tina Garabedian, an Armenian-Canadian. Armenia grants citizenship “without any requirements to people who have provided outstanding service” to the country – increasing a stable of top talent seems to matter.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN COUNTRIES CEASE TO EXIST?
The dissolution of the Soviet Union happened just before the 1992 Winter Olympics (when the Winter and Summer Olympics were held in the same year). The successor states had no NOCs in place, so the athletes competed as a unified team.
The Olympic Charter makes a special provision for cases of independence, border changes and mergers, giving athletes a unique choice between representing the original entity or the new one.
WHAT DO THE CRITICISM SAY OF CHANGE OF NATIONALITY?
While the Olympics purport to avoid politics, almost every facet of them is inherently political.
Athletes who change nationality risk being branded traitors by their rejected country. In 2017, the track’s international governing body froze nationality changes and its chairman, Sebastian Coe, said the changes “border on traffic if you’re not careful”. The comment was sparked by countries like Qatar recruiting athletes unrelated to the competition, but denying them full citizenship rights.
Even former IOC President Jacques Rogge has expressed concern over financially motivated decisions to change nationality in 2012.
HOW ARE THESE ATHLETES RECEIVED BY THEIR “NEW” COUNTRIES?
It kind of depends on their performance. We’ve seen the differing reactions in China to gold medalist Gu and fellow Chinese team member Zhu Yi, a figure skater who won a novice national title in the United States as Beverly Zhi but who s passed out at these Olympics.
It’s a common theme in the sports world: football fans can be brutally racist or xenophobic towards certain national team players. German-born Mesut Özil helped Germany win the World Cup in 2014, but – following the discord surrounding his association with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – became the center of anger when the Germans crashed unexpectedly in early 2018.
“I’m German when we win, but I’m an immigrant when we lose,” he wrote on his resignation from the national team.
Mallika Sen, a journalist with the Associated Press based in New York, is on a mission to the Beijing Olympics. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mallikavsen