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.

Mark McLaren

According to Wikipedia, "athletes from Northern Ireland can elect to represent the Ireland team instead of the Great Britain team."

Also, it would not just about letting the best athletes compete, but giving all athletes equal opportunities to coaching, technology, etc.


Rather then letting people play for whatever coountry they want, why not let each country field as many players as they can? That guy that very nearly beat Phelps should have been on the American team because he wasn't in the top few in America, but he was good enough to qualify for the Serbian team, and then he made that race interesting. What would be wrong with the USA fielding three or four basketball teams? Multiple Beach volleyball team come from each country...China won silver and gold in the woman's event.


A great idea! I don't know why we are competing nation against nation at all. It's been especially annoying to realize that NBC is showing us a limited view of the Games because they want to showcase Americans. I've been spending increasing amounts of time on the net so that I can see the "best", even if they are not American. (I am glad that they are taping those. It's given me a chance to tae kwan do, my favorite sport.)


I think that it would create a weird situation because being a pro athlete means mainly treating sport as a profitable occupation and eventually reaching the glory. The wealthiest countries would collect the best of the best by offering biggest money or the most effective methods of doping. Going futher it could push some corporations to create their own teams on the same rules. Countries would fight against each other and trademarks for medals. Maybe that would be total free market in sports?

Nowadays we are facing other odd situation where nationality decides which minimum you have to comply to get to the Olympics. Without that many poorer countries wouldn't have chance to compete. Is it fair? Maybe after every event we should count a ratio of medals per country and then settle a limit of sportsmen that can compete under its flag on next Olympics?

Another problem is supremacy of some countries. This games are going to be victory of China. On the next event they are going to make it better and better. It is because this country is still running on a socialism. Chinese train the youngest chidren which are pushed to their limits. Then they employ the best coaches who can pick the most promising future athletes from legions. That is how human resources should be managed. It is not yet genetic manipulation but maybe somday gold medalists would be forced to have children only with each other. Is creating a super race something strange? Maybe it is a destiny?

As usual, in a situation where many know that the system should be changed they won't do that. Drugs, prostitution and doping are just a few things that we have never solved in satisfying way. Just like the article said, shenanigans and evasions can change everything. So maybe we should cheer up everybody to do so?

// Please note that my comment is full of irony. Sorry for my language. I hope that I've presented my thoughts clearly.



This trend has been around for many years--in soccer. Chris Kaman, Becky Hammon, and JR Holden made Ayers think about it, but Deco, Emmanuel Olisadebe, and Alex are already old news. I recall during the either the 2002 or 2006 World Cup an commentator mention only somewhat facetiously that Alex playing for Japan represented that country's entry into the "Adopt a Brazilian" Program.

Frank T

I think this is a terrible idea. The Olympics is supposed to a competition between nations! There are some stand out athletes who don't make it, but the current system makes way for a number of athletes who would never have the opportunity to compete on an international stage. The players love to play for their country, and the citizens of those countries love to see their people out there giving their all.


If the goal is to find all the very finest athletes in the world and put them in the Olympics, then any kind of division based on country -- fluidity of citizenship aside -- is counterproductive and useless.

What should be done, instead, is to hold trials for eligible athletes by sport, worldwide, without regard to their countries; from the trial results get a list of athletes for each sport; then hold an Olympics with just them. With team sports you'd have to randomly assign them to arbitrary teams.

Only this will guarantee that you get only the world's finest athletes -- and ALL of them -- in the Olympics.

Unfortunately it will be difficult, if not impossible, for viewers to determine who to root for, in team sports especially, since all their favorite players will be randomly scattered among arbitrary teams.

Like it or not, division by country creates an automatic stable of backers for the athletes. This, in turn, creates interest that might not otherwise exist. Without this division the Olympics would be quite a different animal than they are now ... and at least with respect to team sports, not anywhere near as dramatic or interesting.

Is it fair that an "accident of birth" might lock an otherwise-good athlete out of the Olympics? Perhaps not ... but there are lots of gaming events other than just the Olympics; many sports have annual "world championships"; there are regional games (e.g. the Pan-American Games); soccer has the World Cup, tennis the Davis Cup; and other sports their own elite, periodic events.

All of these and more provide appearance-opportunities to many athletes.

If there are not enough such opportunities, and good athletes are still locked out of competition, perhaps this could be the impetus for some kind of "second-tier" of events ... similar to the annual NCAA/NIT tournaments in US college basketball. Those athletes who are "on the margin" of entry into the Olympics could go into this alternative competition.

Perhaps, rather than being centralized (in a single venue) as Olympics are, this second-tier event system could be distributed around the world; they could all take place within the same couple of weeks, but be in many locales, by sport, thus sparking localized interest near where they are held -- rather than having interest sparked by patriotism or backing one's own country.

In other words, if the problem is that some athletes lack sufficient opportunities to make appearances, the solution is to create MORE opportunities, rather than just reshuffle the opportunities that already exist.

Just thinking out loud ...


Rich Wilson

It seems really silly when you have pairs, such as figure skating, and beach vollyball. What if the person you work best with happens to be from another country?

I wonder if any of these 'dual-citizen-so-I-can-go-to-the-olympics' cases could have gotten that citizenship without being sports stars.


I agree completely with comment #1. And even if I put myself in the place of an athlete who does not make my "real" country's team, I don't know if I would WANT to go to the Olympics with another country. It would feel wrong.

Of course, there are probably a lot of actual athletes who disagree with me.


This board is interested in economics, right?

What would be the economic consequences and the consequences to the games if citizenship/eligibility were mutable.

Would Usain Bolt run for Jamaica? Maybe. Or maybe he'd run for the United States after Coke or Nike or McDonald's offered him millions to do so.

I don't see the United States Olympic Committee coming up with the money to pay players to play for the U.S. But I would put nothing past American corporate entities who want to use American athletes to market their wares.

I also could imagine other countries paying athletes to compete on their behalf. China is pouring money into the development of their athletes. Whose to say they wouldn't pour money into athletes looking to cash in on their ability? Whose to say Kobe Bryant wouldn't look good in red?

European professional basketball teams are beginning to attract NBA players (Josh Childress, Brandon Jennings being two recent examples). The media tells us that there are billionaires in some countries who own teams who might pay Bryant or LeBron James 50 million to play hoops for their team. If that's the case, why not millions to compete for Italy or Greece or Spain in the Olympics?

I agree that the end of amateurism was great for the Olympics. (I can't wait until boxing is such a sport -- I'd love to see the pro boxers compete in a succession of four round bouts.) But mutable citizenship could lead to a brand of "free agency" that would swing the pay-for-play pendulum to far the other way.



A good start would be allowing legal residents of any country to vote in the general elections regardless of their nationality. They pay their taxes, yet they are not allowed to have a say in how these are used. In contrast, citizens who have not lived in their country for years and pay their taxes somewhere else are allowed to vote.


The only think I'd prefer seeing to "transcend" nations would be for pair or team sports, it should just be the best few teams that compete. So, for the pairs rowing, why not have a Canadian and an American sit next to each other, and grant each country half a medal in the standings. Sure, it would be awkward having some random country have 1 player on a baseball team, and get 1/26th of a medal, but you deal with that.


I have a suggestion that I think may be even better....

Is there anything more uplifting than the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. At such transcendent moments, it makes it hard to understand why there is war in the world. The athletes are in the flush of youth (most of them), the prime of health, and we are rightfully proud of them...all of them.

What if, instead of having an Olympics without nations, we INSTEAD had an Olympics where we "chose up teams," so to speak? Instead of there being an American basketball squad, we'd simply figure out how many basketballers had showed up, then figure out how many teams that makes, let the head of every squad be a "coach," and let them pick from the lot of them (with the rule that they can't pick anyone from their own squad except every, say, third pick).

Well, now we have truly INTERNATIONAL TEAMS. And I would think that they would be playing together as best they could in order to bring glory to their nation, their team, and themselves.

Of course, they would have to spend time practicing together to be competitive, but that's a wonderful thing!

Consider what would happen (assuming it is not unimaginable) if an Iranian sprinter and an Israeli sprinter were on the same 400X4 Relay team. That's going to foster some degree of understanding or respect, I would think. After all, both would be world-class athletes, and that's a starting place for mutual respect.

Then, imagine them actually winning! Can you imagine the whole team hugging and patting each other on the back?

And this might also end the regular charge of favoritism by this judge or that? After all, they couldn't very well favor a particular country when that country's team is dispersed among 20 teams, could they?

And it's hard to be nasty-angry at a nation with whom your best and brightest are linked with their best and brightest. I mean, you could conceiveably see the President of the United States and the President of Iran cheering for the same team.

Yes, I know that's all idealistic. But maybe that's where good things start...with an ideal.



Re: #6. "nearly all the sprinters trained or went to university in the US"

This brings to mind a discussion of whether these athletes should be at a public university, funded with public monies, and probably using scholarship slots, all the while not being a citizen of this country.

Mike B

As citizenship becomes more arbitrary and fluid in the context of international sport it would be interesting to see a true "League of Nations" (not to be confused with the National League) develop. The first thing I would like to see implemented is a system of trades and a draft. Would free agents be considered "stateless persons"?

We could start playing Moneyball with all forms of athletes! Our NBA stars are so highly valued in China that we could probably trade Kobe Bryant for their entire diving squad (netting 8 golds per Olympics) and then bring in the Boston Celtics to trounce former American star in the Basketball tournament anyway.

Athletes might not like being forcibly deported to "developing" nations, but I am sure they would be properly compensated.


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.


People follow professional sports primarily because the athletes are the best at what they do. People follow amateur sports (college, HS, local, etc.) because they feel a more genuine sense of representation than they do for professional athletes, who are more often than not, hired guns. (Or as comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it, we're basically "rooting for laundry".)

The Olympics are the best of both worlds. While there may be more parity in competition with "free agency", the drama would be much less. Viewership might plummet, and without viewers, the Olympics would likely cease to exist. I would put nation hopping to compete in the Olympics in the category of just because you can doesn't mean you should.


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.


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.


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