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.

Eric Gay/AP
Kenyan: Bernard Lagat is one of nearly three dozen foreign-born athletes on the US team.

The Olympic torch has traditionally ignited nationalistic rivalry and pride, with citizens across the globe glued to their TV screens rooting for “their” athletes. But just as globalization has made everything from T-shirts to Toyotas a hybrid of efforts from around the world, so, too, are Olympic teams becoming a multinational product.

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.

“It’s definitely a growing trend,” says Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. “The coaches want to coach the best athletes; the athletes want the best coaches.”

The phenomenon began in the mid-1980s as the Soviet Union was crumbling, leaving highly trained professional athletes and coaches free to take advantage of more lucrative career options elsewhere. It was accelerated by foreign athletes who, drawn by generous scholarship packages, began flocking to US universities – making the NCAA a de facto Olympic development pipeline for other countries. Most recently, oil-rich Gulf states have started luring top athletes with hefty salaries.

Qatar, with its shopping-spree approach to creating the best Olympic team, is often cited as the country that perfected what one expert disparagingly calls the “athletic mercenary” strategy to success.

The tiny oil-rich kingdom, vying to host the 2016 Games, won its first Olympic medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games, when Somali-born runner Mohammed Suleiman finished third in the 1,500 meters. In 2000, Qatar won its second bronze with Angel Popov (competing under his Arabized name, Saif Saeed Asaad) – one of eight Bulgarian weight lifters whom Doha reportedly recruited for $1 million the year before. And Qatar wooed world-class Kenyan steeplechaser Stephen Cherono with a reported $1,000-a-month stipend. In 2003, he broke the decades-long Kenyan domination of the event by winning the world championship title for Qatar.

Wealthy neighbors Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates seemed to think Qatar was on to a great idea and began recruiting from Africa themselves. Bahrain’s top female track hopeful this year is Maryam Yusuf Jamal, an Ethiopian woman who lives in Switzerland.

This phenomenon is not confined to the Arabian Peninsula, however. The 596-member US Olympic team in Beijing includes nearly three dozen foreign-born athletes, including British rower Jen Goldsack and long-distance runner Bernard Lagat, who won Olympic medals for Kenya in both Athens and Sydney.

US Olympic Committee spokeswoman Lindsay DeWall says the team is a great example of America’s unique diversity. “The United States is a country that was founded by immigrants looking for a better future and it continues to welcome people from around the world,” writes Ms. DeWall in an e-mail from Beijing. “It is a country that is constantly improved by the talent, diversity, and attributes of its citizens – including those who are foreign born.”

That’s reflected at the collegiate level as well. Many up-and-coming swimmers, track stars, tennis players, and skiers come to the US to get an education – and take advantage of world-class facilities, coaching, and training opportunities. The trend is controversial: Foreign recruits raise the level of competition for US collegiate athletes, but they also fill scholarship slots that otherwise would go to American athletes – a practice which, some argue, undermines US Olympic chances. In 2004, for example, three of the four swimmers that won South Africa’s first-ever relay gold – besting the favored US team – had competed for the University of Arizona, and the fourth was headed into his freshman year there.

If US athletes are disgruntled, perhaps they could take a page out of the Chinese table tennis players’ book. Crowded out by talent in their own country, many Chinese have emigrated to other countries – including the US, where five of the eight players at this year’s Olympic trials were born in China. US basketball star Becky Hammon reverse-engineered that tactic, joining Russia’s 2008 Olympic team when she failed to make the US squad for Beijing.

But for countries, it’s harder. They often watch helplessly as other countries take off with athletes they’ve invested a lot of time and money in, says Abby Hoffman, a council member of the International Association of Athletics Federations, which has approved nearly 300 changes in citizenship over the past decade and is tinkering with its rules to make them as fair as possible.

“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.”

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.”

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