The United States is the biggest exporter of athletes representing other countries at the Pyeongchang Winter Games; Nigeria fields an all-American female bobsled team
Faster, Higher, Stronger— just not for your country of birth.
The Olympics have long thrived on patriotic passions, but some athletes might not have been citizens of the countries they represent until very recently. At the current Pyeongchang games, 178 sportsmen and women are wearing the flags of countries that they weren’t born in, according to a recent study from CapRelo, an executive relocation firm.
As a country with a long history of immigration and a permissive policy on dual citizenships, the United States has the largest number of Olympians competing for other countries, with 37 native-born Americans flying foreign flags. Many represent nations that they have familial ties to. Take for instance North Carolina native Randi Griffin, who is sliding on ice for South Korea; her mother is of Korean ethnicity. New York figure skater Nicole Rajičová is wearing the colors of Slovakia, where her parents are from.
Others have more tenuous links to their new countries: Boston-born Alexander Gamelan, who is white, is ice dancing for South Korea. Gamelin was only naturalized by the Olympic host country last year, after a test in which he was asked to sing the South Korean national anthem. His primary affiliation to the Republic of Korea appears to be through his dance partner Yura Min, who already held passports from both countries.
(The United States has also benefited from this trend. Over 40 non-native born athletes represented America at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. California native and Olympic bronze medalist figure skater Mirai Nagasu also held Japanese citizenship, but reportedly gave it up as an adult.)
South Korea is fielding the largest corps of non-native athletes, with 18 born elsewhere, per the CapRelo analysis. Athletes who wish to represent a new country at the Olympics have to conform to a thicket of sometimes complex rules. In general, you have to be a citizen of the country whose colors you wear. Some sports, like association football, or soccer, don’t allow you to change allegiances after you’ve already repped one country. For others, the Olympic Charter requires a three year wait before you can compete for another nation, though there are some exceptions.
Yet, many Olympians are willing to jump through the hoops. For some, it’s because of large financial incentives offered by their new homes, with oil-rich Gulf states like Qatar and Bahrain having been criticized for trying to buy medals. (Qatar reportedly offered some foreign runers a lifetime monthly salary of $1,000) For others, being able to compete for another entity gives them a chance to perform at the world’s highest level. China, which dominates table tennis, has long exported paddlers who know that they’ll never be able to break into the three or so Olympic spots that a country of 1.3 billion people has to offer.
For countries without the right infrastructure or environment for training, deploying foreign-born athletes also gives them a chance to shine on the world stage. Nigeria’s first-ever female bobsled team is made up of three American women of African ethnicity.
For some critics, athletes wearing the colors of a foreign flag are a sign of commercialism and globalization gone amok. But the reaction of South Koreans who cheered on U.S. snowboarder Chloe Kim, whose parents were born there, as if she were one of their own suggests that many just enjoy the competition.
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