The Price of Olympic Competition

There have been a lot of posts here about various wrinkles in Olympic competition: medal count, citizenship flexibility, outlying statistics, etc.

Here’s perhaps the smallest wrinkle of all, but one that I found fascinating. It falls under the “citizenship flexibility” category and concerns one Olympic athlete’s name.

We wrote in Freakonomics that the name a child is given seems to bear no outcome on that child’s life, as ridiculous (Temptress) or as wonderful (President) as that name may be. But in this instance, it seems that the athlete’s name made it possible for her to compete.

I watched the women’s 1,500-meter final, and one of the competitors — she wound up finishing fifth — was Maryam Yusuf Jamal from Bahrain.

Maybe it was because Bahrain had just won its first-ever gold medal, courtesy of the 1,500-meter men’s runner Rashid Ramzi, but I was curious to learn a bit more about Jamal. Ramzi, after all, is a native of Morocco; I wondered where Jamal is from.

It turns out she was born in Ethiopia, a running mecca, and that Bahrain persuaded her to race under its flag. The twist is that she was born into the Christian tribe of Oromo and was named Zenebech Tola. According to her Wikipedia page, which seems pretty well supported by other sources, Bahrain granted her citizenship …

in exchange that she change her name to an Arabic one and that she compete in the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, in 2006. She was allowed to keep her religion though.

Here is how Jamal puts it on her own web site:

I prayed to God and my prayers were answered. After many attempts, the kingdom of Bahrain proposed a chance to change citizenship. I accepted and became Maryam Yusuf Jamal in January 2005 with [her trainer and husband] Mnashu Taye also changing his allegiances to Bahrain and to a new name of Tarek Yacqob Sabt.

We are happy with Bahrain. I get a lot of support from their Federation both morally and financially.

M Todd

This is why I do not watch the Olympics anymore. It is a professional sporting event. It is riddled with corruption, cheating, and win at all cost.

Most the athletes are paid, and if they win gold they can become rich. Why not dispense with the we are the world BS and call it what it is, a big money sporting event that is dominated by those who can buy the best performers.

Why not just let corporations enter under their corporate logos then you will really see some serious competition. Or sell Olympic franchises like the NFL.

Luis Jerez

I tend to think alike #1. in his last paragraph. I am dominican and recently we have had athletes being trained overseas and sponsored privately so they can give our country a medal of any sort since our country does not invest even the minimum for the sports program, thus giving us national pride from the success the may arrive.

One good example is Félix Sánchez. During the early 2000, the country had low morale and poor self-image due to one of the too many money crises brought upon any country riddled and harassed by government corruption and the like. Here comes Félix Sanchez, son of dominican inmigrants in the states, not even able to speak spanish properly, only visited the country on vacation when he was a child, and then decided to represent the Dominican Republic in games around the globe.

He became our national hero after the gold in Athens. National Pride when up and out of the roof! Which sent signals to the not so easily surprised that if you were to be an example for the Dominican Republic you need to be born american, be trained overseas and then come home with the gold. Thanks god that changed a bit this year when one of our locals athletes, raised in the barrios with poor support from the sports officials, won the gold medal in one of the boxing categories.



What it is not mentioned in the article, is that she was living as an asylum seeker in Switzerland and under this condition she was unable to compete outside the country. So, the only way for her to compete was to get another nationality, which swiss authorities denied her, so the accepted the offer from Bahrain.

Things are not always simple, and it is not always a matter of money.


I have till not come to the chapter about parenting and popular names in your book, so I may be making an uninitiated observation here.

It seems to me that most popular fashion and luxury product designers have only two syllables in their first and/or last names. I googled for "top fashion designers" and here's the first link Some other names that were not there on its left hand side column were Estee Lauder and Nina Ricci.

Even names that are supposedly longer -- a Frenchman called Jean Paul Gaultier, and a Belgian called Dries Van Noten -- can be pronounced in two and two syllables.

Apparently such names catch on easily, but do they tell something more?


This is a matter of choice. She was not forced in any shape or form. If she did not like it, she could have declined it without any adverse consequence. What is important is that she made a decision and she is happy with the outcome. She did not choose to be called Zenebech in the first place, she was given an Amhara name, which was not her native language, and she changed it to Arabic, willingly. There is no difference between the two languages to the Oromo nation.


The point is not that she competed under another flag - that's a common story not at all unique to her situation. What stands out here is that she was "asked" to change her name as a condition of receiving citizenship. Is that appropriate? Would other countries make the same request/demand?

Nicholas Kurian

She is an asylum seeker so is not necessarily a good example of this phenomenon.

The runner formerly known as Stephen Cherono is a better one, though not in these olympics. Qatar paid his family $1000/month for life and $1 million for ever gold medal he won, if he changed his name to Saif Saeed Shaheen and competed under the Qatari flag.

The Kenyans hated it; I heard two competing stories: One, that the Kenyan government sold Cherono to Qatar in return for a stadium. The other, they revoked his citizenship and will not grant him a visa, so he cannot even see his family or friends.

Unfortunately, it is possible that both stories are true.


You see the same thing in the World Cup and other international soccer events. Weird stuff like Africans playing for countries like Poland and Brazilians for Japan. The latter I find rather irritating because it is pretty much impossible to immigrate to Japan...unless you are good at sports. Bahrain likely has the same double standard.

While it is nice to see people move across borders (as I would like to do), it kind of destroys the rationale for even having a World Cup or Olympics--at least ones based on nationality.


In the movie Muriel's Wedding, she marries a South African swimmer so he can get Australian citizenship (to avoid the boycott then in effect). Milo Cavic, who almost beat (or tied) Phelps swims for Serbia but was born and raised in S. California. Bernard Legat, who ran for the US in the 1500 and 5000, is one of the most famous former Kenyan Olympians.

Many Olympians have dual citizenship and compete for the country where they can make the team. The American flag bearer, Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese "lost boy," could have run for either country - assuming Sudan even had a team, but many athletes have a better chance making the team in a smaller country.

The movement of citizenship to follow the money is relatively recent but payment for medals and training has become more a political issue - meaning done for national pride - beginning mostly in the 90's.


When the lady is denied her God given talent and natural rights to exercise in Ethiopia, it is appropriate to accept the name Mariyam Yesuf Jamal. The point is that, what she had lost being born to Tola in Ethiopia,she gained by becoming Jamal in Bahrain



#3 Most Muslim countries require you to change your name to a Muslim name as a prerequisite for citizenship. In the USA, while it is not a requirement, they do ask you if you would like to change your name at the citizenship ceremony, and make it very easy to do so.

#2 There are 250,000 ex-Brazilians living in Japan, and I am sure they are not all there to play soccer.

Finally, it seems the Chinese table tennis players are so dominating that the ruling bodies have banned Chinese over 21 from ever playing for other countries:


I think what Bahrain Gov has one is the fair one. To at least allow Tola to keep her relgion. when wetern missioneries came to a poor country like ethiopia they have have transformed peopel's name from Oromo name to Cristian name of thier own and relgion, from ISLAM to cristianity in exchange of meeting a basic human need. such as clothing, school apportunity and scholarship to thier western country. Therefore, Tola should be happy with the name Maryam while granted a citzen and able to compet in the olympics which she may not if in ethipia under name TOLA.