Now more than ever, Olympic teams go multinational
Increasingly, athletes are switching national alliances – sometimes for money, but also for better training opportunities or a chance to compete in a sport that’s too saturated with talent back home.
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“What we’re worried about is particularly young athletes in countries with far more talent than can be stuffed into their Olympic team ... going to a country with lots of money which is picking these athletes, giving them instant citizenship, a passport, a new name, and naming them to their Olympic teams,” says Ms. Hoffman, a four-time Olympic runner for Canada in the 800 meters. “Sometimes it’s the home country saying, ‘We’re not stamping out cookie-cutter athletes so that other countries can come buy the athlete – and pay the athlete, not the federation.”Skip to next paragraph
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It’s important, however, to see the phenomenon in a larger context, says Hoffman. “If you think on a global scale, people are moving around for business reasons, because they’re refugees, because they’re dislocated by wars. We can’t have a system in sport that fails to recognize that global migration is a reality.”
But for some – perhaps because at the Olympics, more than at any other sporting event, athletes represent not just themselves but their country – the notion of switching allegiances doesn’t pass the “smell test” as Olympic historian Bill Mallon puts it. “These are people who are basically being athletic mercenaries,” he says.
The International Olympic Committee seems to disagree, however. In recent years, it has institutionalized the cross-pollination of expertise between countries through the Olympic Solidarity Program, which uses its $200 million budget in part to bring athletes and coaches from less wealthy nations to countries with better opportunities.
Maria Mutola, a middle-distance runner from Mozambique, skyrocketed to international prowess after the Solidarity program brought her to an Oregon university in 1991. Since then, she has won more than a dozen world championship titles, as well as Olympic gold in Sydney.
“For every Maria Mutola, there are lesser athletes that the IOC does the same thing for,” says Wallechinsky. “I don’t think the Olympic movement was really meant to promote nationalism.”
Anthony Bijkerk, secretary-general of the International Society of Olympic Historians, sees both sides. “I can see the frustrations of both nations losing athletes to other countries, and local athletes losing slots to foreign-born ones, but whether or not this is interfering with good competition or not is really a matter of perspective,” concludes Mr. Bijkerk. “It depends on the athlete and the reason they are switching teams. True, when someone does it only for the money, I don’t like it – but when switching countries is an athlete’s best chance to compete ... well, then I think it only enhances competition.”