Rita Lopes

import-export… of olympians

A few days ago I was watching Rio 2016 (as you do), and women’s gymnastics was on. At some point, the commentator said something along the lines of:

And now, the Belarusian gymnast—Kylie Rei Dickson. And if you’re wondering about her name not sounding Belarusian… that’s because she’s actually American.

Then, they went to explain (or complain?) that she was born in the USA and had become a Belarus citizen recently, after being offered the opportunity to represent Belarus in sporting events. She has no family coming from Belarus and at the time she was given citizenship had never visited or been to the country she was adopting. At the same time this happened, another American gymnast, Kylie’s team mate in fact, did the same thing—Alaina Kwain.

Here’s the thing in all of this. As an athlete, I imagine participating in grandiose events and big competitions to be quite high in your list of wildest dreams and desires. What, then, if you’re born in the same generation as Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Aly Raisman, three of the world’s best athletes in history, ever? That must make it near impossible to other amazing athletes to ever be called upon competing in Olympics and World Championships and big events of the kind. So I imagine this must weight heavily on one’s heart and mind when a different opportunity presents itself.

don’t take my word for it

If you’ve never consider this, or how common it is, here are a few good examples. Some are more obscure if you don’t follow their sports, others you might have heard of!

  • Andrei Gheorghe: Guatemalan pentathlete. Born in Romania.
  • Dan Martin: rides for Ireland. He was born and raised in England.
  • Nicolas Roche: born in France, he rides for Ireland.
  • Ciara Horne: an Irish turned English (who also represented Wales at one point, if we want to be even more specific).
  • Szandra Szogedi: gymnast turned judoka; Hungarian turned Ghanaian.
  • Owen Hargreaves: footballer born in Canada. He claims he “always felt English”, and so England he represents.
  • Mike Catt: born in South Africa. Plays rugby for England and had the ball when the final whistle that gave England their first world title in 2003.
  • Chris Froome: born in Kenya, and competed for Kenya until 2008. He represents England now, including at Rio 2016.
  • Mo Farah: Mo! The 5000m and 10000m London 2012 Olympic Champion was born in Somalia.
  • … that’s enough, right?

If anything, the list above shows that many of our sporting heroes have competed for several countries over their careers. We tend to not think too much of it, except when it seems like someone has become a country’s citizen only to compete for them, rather than because they have a connection to it. Here’s a little story to show what I mean:

it’s not just in the olympics

The first time I recall thinking about whether it was “right” or “wrong” to nationalise an athlete for a country so that they could compete to the highest level for a nation where they weren’t born in was in the early 2000s. At the time, it was about football. I’ve always loved football (it’s really not a newly acquired taste, mind!), and so it caught my eye. A lot of chatter was going around about the possibility of Deco becoming a Portuguese citizen and, thus, being eligible to play for Portugal in upcoming events.

At the time there was a lot of controversy and very steep division amongst Portuguese people. I remember that a more nuanced view of this matter for some was that he didn’t feel Portuguese himself, as he would hint to at some point. For us, Portuguese, it seemed to be a national pride kind of matter. At the time, Brazil had a fabulous team—he stood no chance of ever been called to play for Brazil. Eventually, the decision was made and he played for Portugal for several years, having done a very good contribution. Fun fact: his first goal for Portugal was scored against Brazil (was it karma?).

this isn’t news

Now, here’s the thing. Over the History of the world, athletes born in one place and competing for another, has been a relatively common occurrence (despite being more common these days), often due to affiliation and ancestry.

Fast forward a few years. Enter Pepe. It seemed like history was repeating itself, yet the outrage was significantly lower. Possibly because Deco had taken all of the heat already, possibly because he felt more Portuguese and made it clear he fully felt like that was now his nation. He married a Portuguese woman. He speaks with little Brazilian accent. He sings the Portuguese anthem. He claims he feels Portuguese. He was, allegedly, contacted by Brazil’s coach at the time, and said he’s Portuguese and will play for Portugal, according to his father.

the real winner… sports

All of this import-export (of athletes) business dilutes a little bit of what it means to have nations going head to head. It will dilute it even further when the athletes don’t speak their countries’ language, or when they’ve never visited (point in case: the American-born Belarusian athletes).

However, there’s a true winner here: the sport. With rules increasingly more narrow so than only a certain (small) number or athletes are allowed to compete representing one country, these athletes who adopt other countries get to compete. That was, probably, the case with the Belarusian gymnasts. They’d never make any progress competing as Americans because their quotas were filled. Yet one of them still got to the Olympics… bearing their new flag on their sparkly garments.

Personally I’m not a huge fan of the idea of simply “importing” an athlete, regardless of their chance to compete for their own country. However, I don’t think it harms anyone either… so when you have people who move to a different place, lived their lives as locals, know and believe in the history, culture, and traditions and claim that that’s their new home—why shouldn’t they compete for the place that actually means most to them? Portuguese sports are ripe with cases like this. Francis Obikwelu, lived in Portugal since he was 16 and became a citizen at 23. Nelson Évora, born in Ivory Coast, moved to Portugal at 5 and has always been Portuguese.

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