US Draws From 'Melting Pot' of Talent

With 36 or more athletes born overseas, American teams show rich cultural diversity

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

By now, millions of Americans have seen the amusing TV commercial for a certain major credit card, the one that pokes a little fun at a big man, Hakeem Olajuwon, the Nigerian-born center of the United States' men's basketball team.

Olajuwon is shown speaking to a group of international players, who applaud him for buying everyone lunch. But fellow Dream Teamer Scottie Pippen pulls Olajuwon aside to tell him that he got the message wrong; it wasn't that the US squad meant to "treat" the others to lunch, but instead intended to "eat them for lunch."

The ad spoofs the language differences that arise in today's multicultural American society. At the same time, it serves as a reminder that the United States is a melting pot nation, a fact perhaps richly reflected in the makeup of its current Olympic team as any before.

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The US easily fields the largest team at these Games, with 667 athletes. Among these, 36 or more were born overseas, and a number of these have gained citizenship only in recent years.

Olajuwon and tennis player Monica Seles, a native of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, are probably the most prominent of the Americans with overseas backgrounds. But the birthplace of others show wide geographical diversity.

Runner Jose Parrilla is from Panama; kayaker Dana Chadlek from the Czech Republic; equestrian rider Guenter Seidel comes from Germany; field hockey player Ahmed Elmaghraby from Egypt; fencer Thomas Strzalkowski from Poland; gymnast Mihai Bagiu from Romania; badminton player Kevin Han from China; softball outfielder Kim Maher from Vietnam; volleyball player Yoko Zetterlund grew up in Japan, and Greco-Roman wrestler Matt Ghaffari from Iran.

Although some American-borns might like to attach political significance to this mix, each individual has his or her reasons for holding US citizenship.

Kevin Han's story shows how difficult it can be to leave one country for another as an athlete. Han grew up in Shanghai, China, and was a promising player in the Chinese junior program. But in 1989 he left China to join his father in the United States.

The family had put down American roots in 1929 when a great grandfather started a new life in San Francisco.

Han's new life in the US was filled with frustrations. New York, where he first lived, overwhelmed him. "For 26 days I hardly went out," he says. "Once I went to Chinatown. I was very afraid. I didn't know my way around or have any friends."

He took English classes and worked as a restaurant delivery boy. For a long while his rackets went unused. "Finally, he says, "I found a club in Queens to play at, and then another at Columbia University."

He started winning area tournaments, which attracted the notice of the US Badminton Association. From there he became a member of the national team and a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

His world ranking has climbed to No. 30 during the past year, but as an opening match loss here in Atlanta to Britain's Peter Knowles proves, Han is a long way from any kind of Olympic glory.

Does he have any second thoughts about what might have been if he had stayed in China?

"I don't want to look back, because this is my decision," he says. "Maybe I could have been a medal contender if I'd stayed in China, but I wouldn't trade what I've done in my American life. I'm catching up. I have a chance [at the next Olympics]. I've got a lot of badminton left."

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