June 5, 2008

What Happened to the Olympic Dream?

For me as a child, the Olympics were about your country above all else. It was about us winning more medals than them, them being anyone and everyone else. I'm too young to remember the Cold War well, but "them" meant USSR for quite some time. It was never about personal glory first and foremost. The greatest honor was to carry the flag in the opening ceremony, not to be the captain of the Dream Team nor to win the most medals. The Olympics were almost like the UN of sports, allowing countries from around the world to participate in a peaceful international event regardless of politics, embodying the true spirit of the original Greek games. I could not have imagined ever wanting to attend the Olympics for another country. It was about local heroes like Dominique Dawes and Kimmie Meissner competing with the world, including countries that made their athletes slaves to make them winners. It was about showing that a capitalist, democratic approach works in sports, just like everywhere else.

Dominique Dawes from Silver Spring, MD

So why is that lengthy paragraph necessary? Modern athletes aren't following the same set of rules that used to be taken for granted. Recently, (American born and raised) Becky Hammon announced that she will be representing Russia in the Olympics, even though she doesn't speak Russian and is not even a full-time resident. In addition, ESPN has run a series of articles ("So You Want to Be an Olympian") documenting a woman's quest to go to Beijing as a triathlete/cyclist, including her newly acquired citizenship in St. Kitts and Nevis. So what are we to think? Is it really the same to go to the Olympics for a random country? Are athletes' citizenship up for the highest bidder? How did we get to this point?

"American" Becky Hammon in her new country's jersey

Globalization: With the increase in the speed and availability of international travel has come an increase in the global sports market. This is true across all sports. In baseball, Ichiro, Dice-K, and Fukudome play in the US, while Bobby Valentine manages in Japan. In basketball, Yao, Yi, Manu, Nene, and Bargnani are just a few of the many international faces in the NBA, while every US college player heads overseas if they're not drafted. And it's not just US sports, Freddy Adu signed with a European club while he was still 18. David Beckham now plays in the US. So who's to say that Freddy won't feel more attached to Portugal if he stays there for a decade? How long does it take to feel like you belong to a different country from where you grew up? What if the US soccer team doesn't want him, but Portugal does? Such was the case for Hammon.

Professionals: Anyone remember when the Dream Team was the first time we sent the pros? It used to be a huge decision whether to go pro or wait for another shot at Olympic gold. Now you can do both in almost every sport (any exceptions besides baseball and figure skating?). As a result, pros from around the world return (for the most part) to their home countries every 4 years to form a national team. Some sports maintain this national team every year, like soccer, while others assemble a team just for the Olympics, creating plenty of uncertainty about a player's status. In addition, the door is open for countries to pay players to play for them, through thinly-veiled club contracts or whatever. Hammon openly admits she gets a bonus if the Russian Olympic team wins. What about sport for the sake of sport?

Best. Team. Ever.

Patriotism: The Hammon article had a lot of snide remarks and accusations, with the US coach accusing her of being unpatriotic. Personally, I can't say I wouldn't have taken the $2 million and a guaranteed spot in the Olympics over a tryout (only once the team was expanded to 30, she didn't make the list of 23 for a team of 12 players). I don't doubt that Hammon would be in the US if relations were bad with Russia or if her presence there threatened the safety of US citizens. So she's definitely not unpatriotic in that sense.

But from the opposite end of this, what do the Olympics mean if it's the best team each country can buy? I don't think I would have the same feeling of satisfaction if we paid Beckham, Ronaldinho, and John Terry to play for the US and then won. I think it's unpatriotic of the countries not to believe in their own talent. It's no embarassment for St. Kitts not to have good enough athletes to qualify for all the events. I would rather have legitimate citizens who will represent your country than hired guns. And for the athletes, is it really the same to represent a different country? Doesn't that cheapen the experience? The fact that only 3 people (in the individual sports) from each country can participate is what makes it so special. Most sports have objective means for choosing the athletes, but if you're borderline in the subjective ones, you probably aren't going to play much anyway. (As a side note, apparently there is some confusion and debate as to why Hammon wasn't on the list of 23 since she's plenty good enough to make the team.)

Every country has its own requirements for citizenship, and as we are finding out, sometimes there are shortcuts. Here's to hoping that decisions like that don't take away from the best part of the Olympics: the pure amateur desire to excel at sports and to represent one's country with dignity, character, and sportsmanship.

22 Responses:

Brien said...

Have you read all the "So You Want to Be an Olympian?" articles? I've been following them since the beginning (I think it was about 18 months ago) and they are absolutely gripping.

Katherine Bertine tried unsuccessfully to make the Olympics for the US in 5 or 6 different sports. Only after that did she start looking to other countries.

I don't have a problem with athletes who can't make their home country's team going to other countries. I wouldn't want the US to pick up the leftovers from other countries, but if they want to do it, that's fine with me.

I would have a big problem if a player chose to play for another country when they had the option of playing for the country of their birth.

Brien said...

Also, you can tell Errol Kerr that he's not patriotic on his Yardbarker blog.

J-Red said...

I would also argue that the IOC has recently not done the U.S. any favors, putting Olympics where the almost MUST be tape delayed, including Nagano, Sydney and Beijing.

I'm not saying that the Olympics should be in North America any more frequently than they currently are, but they definitely need to be spaced somewhat.

Consider that sports were not on television 24 hours a day until 1980. Add in the Cold War and the market was ripe for the Olympics. Then in the 80's to 1992, before the every two years change, the Olympics were held in Lake Placid, Moscow (boycotted), Sarajevo, L.A., Calgary, Seoul, Albertville and Barcelona. Except for Seoul, all of these had intrigue and/or a good time zone.

Then the IOC switched to every two years, making a World Cup-like event into a more common spectacle. Then they decided that the Olympics should not be limited to big countries and big cities, placing them in Lillehammer, Nagano and Turin. Seoul, Nagano, Sydney and to some extent Athens were not time zone friendly. Now Beijing is up, which is intriguing as a look into the world's rising superpower, but still poses the same time zone problem.

I think the proof is that I haven't heard any stories of OTHER countries' citizens playing for countries with which they have only an ancillary or technical connection. The IOC has done a poor job maintaining U.S. interest in the games, and it's starting to show.

Also, in case no one has noticed the Olympics have never been held in South America or Africa . Not in Rio, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Cairo, Santiago, Brasila. None of these cities. What is wrong with them?

J-Red said...

Brien, there is a big difference between Kerr and others. Kerr is skiing for Jamaica in a Winter Olympics. Remembering Cool Runnings, it's fun to have summer countries participate in the Winter Games. I accept that in the name of including the entire world.

As for Americans who compete for other countries because they can't make the team in America... isn't the Olympic Dream to compete for your country? I assume it's highly unlikely any of them would medal, but what is the point of telling your home country "I told you so"?

Dean said...

I'd probably take the $2 mil to play for Russia, also. And then when I would see the American team in their U.S.A. unis line up across from me, I'd want to put a gun to my head.

Russell said...

Errol Kerr gets a pass from me. America is a country of immigrants, and he could easily identify more with his father's country than the US. Hammon had no connection with Russia other than money.

I have not kept up with the Bertine articles. I read the first couple and thought it was ridiculous that she was trying to do it on such a short time frame. I cycled enough to be a little familiar with the USA Cycling rules, and they're not conducive to rising quickly through the ranks.

I don't have a problem with Bertine's approach if that country didn't have anyone else to take that spot that could qualify (Cool Runnings scenario). I do have a problem with her bumping the third best cyclist born in St Kitts, if that's the case and that woman could qualify. I don't know the particulars of her situation.

michael said...

Good call on South America. Rio de Janeiro is one of the four finalists to host the 2016 games, so maybe that will happen. And in a time zone two hours later than EST and five hours later than PST, it will be feaisible for us to watch them live. Surprising that Rio, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Lima have never been seriously considered before now.

China is a horrible time zone for the entire world except China, Japan, and Australia. The Americas and Europe cant see them either.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Dean, I'd take the money (I'm a poor student), but I wouldn't really be able to take pride in winning for another country.

I think playing for another country should really be only allowed for people whose parents are natives of that other country. However, the onus would be on the countries to enforce this rule, which is unlikely.

As far as the "Cool Runnings" argument. I think it is good for a country to be represented and it is somewhat acceptable to include a nonnative to be able to include the entire world, but how much pride could Jamaica take in Kerr's winning a medal if he's not Jamaican (I'm sure his winning a medal is unlikely, but still)

Erik said...

The Olympic Dream isn't playing for your country, it's proving your abilities against the best in the world.

Winter Olympics have more often than not gone to small ski-resort cities... Lake Placid, Squaw Valley, St. Moritz, etc.

The "ideal" of amateurism was a scam to keep poor and middle class people out of rich men's games. Generally only people of great wealth had the time and money to put towards training. If you're laboring 40-60 hours a week, it's hard to get in your fencing practice. God forbid you had to earn a living as a ski instructor instead of having the money to hit the slopes for ten hours a day all winter long.

Anonymous said...

Freddy Adu's played matches for the senior U.S. men's national team. Per FIFA regulations, he would be ineligible to play for another nation. In fairness, this situation did use to happen, but the rules were changed sometime in the 1990s to disallow it (though someone who's played for a youth national team isn't tied to that nation.)

J-Red said...

Just by way of follow-up on Russell's point, citizenship rules vary by country. It's totally in a nation's discretion to control the means by which an individual can become a citizen.

In the U.S., there are two ways to be a citizen: by birth and by naturalization. To be a citizen by birth, a child can be born inside the United States, no matter who the parents are. In addition, if one parent is a U.S. citizen who has lived inside the U.S. for a set period of time, the child is a U.S. citizen by blood. The time-in-country requirement prevents a U.S. citizen who left the country at a young age from creating a whole lineage of U.S. citizens who have never been to the U.S.

Naturalization is the immigration route. We think of it as the green card method.

In other countries, the rules vary. In St. Kitts for example allows for "citizenship by investment". One becomes a citizen by giving the St. Kitts government $35K and investing in $250K worth of real estate. Other than the paperwork, that's it. Grenada, Dominica and Belize also allow this route.

The U.S. allows dual citizenship, as do many countries. However, if you become a naturalized citizen of the U.S., you are required to renounce your prior citizenship and take whatever steps are necessary to carry that out. However, there are no penalties for failing to do so and the other country, guaranteed to be less well off than the U.S., has no incentive to strip you. The rule doesn't work the other way though. If you become a citizen of a foreign country you do not have to renounce your American citizenship, unless that country so requires.

What are the benefits of dual citizenship? For one, you CAN travel freely to countries to which the U.S. prohibits travel. This is why there are flights from Miami to Havana even though U.S. citizens are not permitted to go to Cuba. It is still generally illegal for a U.S. citizen to travel to Cuba, but by presenting the other country's passport one would be unlikely to face opposition.

J-Red said...

Erik, then why bother with the procession of nations at the opening ceremony? Why have the five rings represent the five "continents" (The Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania)? Why play the national anthem of the winners?

It may be designed as an competition to determine the best of the best, but that certainly isn't how it's treated. In many ways the Olympics reflect the state of nationalism at any pinpointed time. Right now, nationalism is breaking down as the world embraces a more global economy. If they really wanted to recreate the drama and intrigue of the Cold War-era Olympics, they'd have to have people compete for their religion.

Whizalen said...

Really enjoyed the article, and I was going to mention (although someone beat it to me) that, having played for the US National Team, Freddy Adu is ineligible to play for another country.

But look at Eduardo da Silva who was the leading scorer during qualifying for the Euro 2008. He was born in Brazil, moved to Croatia at 16 to play and chose to represent them instead of Brazil. He event went so far as to adopt a Euro-mullet. There are Brazilians playing for at least four countries in the Euros (sadly Eduardo not being one of them what with that broken leg thingy).

Back in the 80s and 90s, Ireland was VERY lenient on granting citizenship for football/soccer players. Basically if an ancestor met an Irishman you were granted citizenship. There was backlash in the early-mid 90s and they quit that practice.

I'm a US native with Irish-born parents. I feel a trememndous attachment and pride for Ireland and honestly would feel very comfortable representing them if I wouldn't/couldn't make the US team. But to refuse to even try out for your country - and then wrap yourself in the flag as much as Ms. Hammon did in that espn piece - is a bit disingenous to me.

numbnuts said...

Let's not get too high and mighty. Congress passed a special law--in essence, rewriting immigration laws--to let Tanith Belbin become a US citizen in time to compete in the 2006 WInter Olympics.

J-Red said...

The Tanith Belbin situation is a good point, but it isn't quite as bad as it sounds.

As of July 2002, people could apply for a green card and begin the naturalization process at the same time. The residency period was shortened from five years to three.

Belbin's problem was that she applied prior to July 2002, and thus had a five-year waiting period. To fix this, and basically grandfather her and a couple others in, Carl Levin of Michigan sponsored legislation that would allow Belbin and about 100 other individuals of "extraordinary ability" to enjoy the accelerated three year process despite applying prior to July 2002.

In other words, Belbin was going to be a citizen anyway. This law just made it happen more quickly. It's still a little unseemly, but it isn't as if we plucked her out of Siberia and declared her a citizen in time to be an Olympian.

The "extraordinary ability" aspect is already an established part of our immigration process. We grant visas to people who are exceptional in their field to allow them to begin residency in the country and become citizens. This means they don't have to "wait in line" with the other citizens of their country who want to come to the U.S. This is actually how foreign athletes are able to live in the U.S. even when they are free agents. Normally, a work visa expires when a foreigner becomes unemployed. Without the "extraordinary ability" visa, they'd be forced out of the country as soon as they become free agents.

numbnuts said...

J-Red -- The central point is that we took an excetional athlete from another country, and now she's competing against her former country. If we'll take people from other countries, we can't really bitch when athletes who don't even make our teams leave the US to compete.

Tanith and her partner were potentially going to knock another US pair out of ice dancing. That other pair sucked at the Worlds, so there was no real choice to be made. But that's an ugly specter.

I read Bertine's articles because they're great. She wants to compete against the best in her sport, on the only big stage her sport has (though Kona certainly counts).

J-Red said...

It's true. I guess the only real argument left is that we don't make it easy to become a citizen, while some other countries do.

You're right that the result is the same though. We're taking the citizens of another country to compete on our behalf, against their native country and to the detriment of other, less-talented, citizen athletes.

Anonymous said...

In figure skating, "pro" and "amateur" aren't really accurate terms. There's "olympic eligible" and "non-olympic eligible." Basically, if your national federation or the ISU is able to get a cut, you're olympic eligible. If not, you're "pro."

Figure skaters can make lots of money - or at least they could when the US market for their sport was stronger - so long as their national federation is ok with the particular venture.

Gymnastics is the sport that really feels the pinch because the athletes are young enough that preserving NCAA eligibility is a major issue. To a certain extent, it hamstrings the USA-Gymnastics federation from marketing the sport. But that's not an issue of the Olympics prohibiting "professionals."

I would like to point out, however, that during the Cold War heyday of the Olympics that we all remember, none of the communist athletes were Amateurs. They had everything paid for. Being world class athletes was their job.

Thanks for the pic of Awesome Dawesome, btw. She's the best!

J-Red said...


Dominique Dawes was a student at Maryland at the same time we were (1998-2003, between the four of us). We all saw her around campus in her little SUV. An Isuzu Trooper, I think. Not exactly big pimping.

Anonymous said...

Hammon is probably one of the best guard of the wnba, if not the best.
Yet, she was NOT invited by the national coach. Now let's take a look at who is the said coach which teams she has been training during her career and let's compare with the list of players chosen and which teams they are playing for... NOW let's talk politic.
Becky is not exactly getting younger and the dream of all champions in any sport is to be at the Olympics. Would she had prefered playing for her country? yes, no doubt about it. But this is probably her last chance so why should she not play for a country that does want her.

Nic said...

I agree, the Olympics should be about defending your country's honor, but citizenship is getting so blurry these days. Two of our 3 "serious contenders" for gymnastics this year are americans, but their parents were medal winning gymansts for Russia back in the 80's.

Even if Adu didn't play for the National team already I wouldn't fault him if he chose Portugal over the US. He's only been a US citizen for 11 years, and most of that time he's been in other places.

Anonymous said...

I think many people focus too much on winning, when it comes to the Olympics. Rather we should all remember that it is 'not about winning, but about taking part'. I understand Becky's dream. She is also not alone. Many other athletes have done the same thing before, and many of these have been competing for the US. You go girl!

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