Citizenship Flexibility at the Olympics Is a Good Thing

At a recent family sing-along in the upper peninsula of Michigan, we dusted off John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The lyrics made me think about the Olympics. Could we imagine the Olympics without national teams?

Imagine a world where the best athletes are able to compete. This is definitely not the current Olympic system. The country quota system keeps many of the best athletes home. If I were the fifth-best backstroker in the world, I’d be upset that I couldn’t compete because of when I was born.

But what about team sports? Ay, there’s the rub. You may think that we’d have to do away with water polo and beach volleyball gold medals if we did away with national teams.

Maybe not.

The beginnings of a new trend are indirectly pushing us toward more meritocratic and less nation-centric Olympics. Citizenship is becoming more fluid for Olympic athletes and it’s improving the quality of competition at the games in both individual and team events.

Take Chris Kaman, the American-born center for the Los Angeles Clippers. Kaman’s parents and grandparents were also born in the U.S. But because of his great-grandparents, Germany granted Kaman citizenship — and he’s been playing hoops for the German Olympic team.

My first reaction to such shenanigans is outrage. But citizenship competition is improving the competitiveness of the Olympic games themselves. The U.S. basketball teams face better competition because people like J.R. Holden and Becky Hammon are playing for Russia.

And it’s not just basketball. Thank God that a kid who was born in Anaheim, Calif., and attended high school and college in California was able to make the Serbian swimming team because of his dual citizenship. Without mutable citizenship, Michael Phelps might not have been pushed to the narrowest of victories in the 100-meter fly.

Some countries don’t allow dual citizenship and would resist letting “their” athletes compete for another country’s team. But it is not necessary that “Olympic citizenship” even be tied to the legal citizenship of an athlete’s country of residence. Imagine a world where athletes are free to register to compete for a spot on any nation’s team.

A free market for Olympic citizenship would reduce the sometimes arbitrary control of national Olympic committees. National Olympic committees would need to be more responsive to athletes who had expanded choice. You could, of course, still root for the redeem team, but suddenly you might want to cheer for an Angolan team populated by N.B.A. players with dual citizenship.

You may say that I’m a dreamer. But remember what happened to amateurism. There was a time when it was unthinkable that professionals would be allowed to compete in the Olympics. Amateurism was a core part of what the Olympics were about. But analogous shenanigans and evasions from Communist block state-supported teams and Western block endorsements eroded the ban on professionals. In 1988, “the word ‘amateur’ disappeared from the Olympic Charter.” I, for one, think the Olympic movement has not suffered.

It would be a smaller change to expand citizenship flexibility. Article 6 of the Olympic Charter currently states:

The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries.

Letting athletes choose their national teams is a simple way of fulfilling this powerful idea.

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  1. Misha Nadel says:

    While I think it’s fair for those who have true dual-citizenship (born in one country, parents citizens of another, or something similar) to pick whom they represent, I think the Chris Kaman example is ridiculous. He’s not German. If he moves back to Germany and lives their and gains citizenship, great, but that’s not what he did.

    Yes, if athletes could simply pick and choose what country they played for, the competition in certain sports would get better (although I think overall you would see little change at the very top), the Olympics would cease to be what it is: the best athletes competing against each other while representing their home countries.

    It would simply become a pro-sports competition held once a year with the wealthiest countries completely dominating. Don’t think for a second that money wouldn’t start changing hands once competitors became free agents.

    You would also eliminate all the great moments for those athletes who have no chance to win, but are still able to go to the Olympics and represent their countries.

    I personally hope that the IOC bans what Kaman did and prevents wider spread abuse of country shopping.

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  2. Steven Thacker says:

    I am not a big fan of watching any sports, with the exception of the Olympics. The reason I enjoy watching the Olympics is that I view the nation vs. nation contests as especially dramatic. I think that if citizenship were more flexible then a lot of the excitement would be lost.

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  3. Alex says:

    The main issue I see with something like this is deciding how players get apportioned to teams. This system would basically be like any major sports league; would there be some kind of lottery? A salary cap related to endorsements, paying for player housing, etc? How would you ensure that all the best athletes don’t all join the same team/country, skewing the competition so much that it sucks the excitement out of the games?

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  4. CandyKay says:

    I like this idea. Can we also do away with the horrible medal counts and pre-recorded versions of the National Anthems?

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  5. Alex says:

    The Athletes have only been representing their nations/countries since the 1908 games in London. Before then, they simply represented themselves.

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  6. Jenna says:

    Watching track and field events last night, I noticed that nearly all the sprinters trained or went to university in the US, regardless of the country they were representing at the games. So your idea is sort of happening already and it seems like athletics are not exempt from the general trend that more money=more resources=better chances at succeeding.

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  7. Ben says:

    The problem is you assume that a more competitive Olympics = A more engaging and better Olympics

    If anyone could play for whatever team they wanted then you would no longer have anything – we live in the same country – in common with the athletes and thus have no stake in their victory.

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  8. doug says:

    In the wake of ‘The World is Flat’ thinking, does ones nationality really matter? I for one am watching but not cheering for my nation during these games. I find myself cheering for individuals.

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