By Phillip Whitten
In Part I of this series of articles, we documented the fact that increasingly, world-class athletes – including swimmers – are changing their sports nationalities. Recently, the oil-rich emirate of Qatar has injected a new element into the equation: money. Big Money.
Should an athlete be free to switch sports nationalities with relative ease?
Most people’s initial impulse is to answer that question in the negative: “If they grew up in this country, were taught here, were nurtured here and used this nation’s resources and facilities, then by golly, they should represent this country.”
Actually, there are many reasons why athletes switch sports nationalities, from simply wanting to be an Olympian, to marrying someone from another country, to having dual citizenship and calculating the likelihood of making it to the Big O’s is higher in country B (say, Qatar) than Country A (say, Australia or the USA), to simply wanting to make piles of money.
Some of these reasons may seem more legitimate than others, but consider: fans may not like it when pro athletes, such as American baseball and basketball players, switch teams. We may lament — “How can he play for the Yankees after being on the Red Sox his whole career?” – but few today would deny the pro athlete the right to Follow the Money.
In fact, even in pro sports, the international element is becoming increasingly important:
• Japanese baseball players – think Ichiro Suzuki – play in the US, as do large numbers of players from such countries as the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela. Americans have long played in the Japanese leagues while many play Winter Ball south of the border.
• The NBA – the National Basketball Association now features players from Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, China and several African countries.
• American baseball, basketball and water polo players, among others, compete in leagues throughout Europe and in Israel, Australia and several other countries, while the European NFL (American football) features dozens of US athletes.
• In professional soccer, the world’s most popular sport, Argentines play for Italian teams, West Africans play for German teams, while Brits and Moroccans and Americans, too, are happy to represent whichever team is offering them the most money.
So, why should Olympic athletes be denied the same opportunities?
Well, you might say, it would render competition between countries meaningless. It would take away a lot of the drama of “Us vs. Them” – the Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys – that keep so many “fans” glued to their TV sets at 1 a.m.
These fans may not know anything about synchronized swimming or the steeplechase or moguls or curling. They may never have heard of any of the athletes. It probably will be four years before they watch the sport again. But they want to stay up and see if the American skier beats the Russian, or the Chinese swimmer defeats her Japanese competitor, or the Turkish weight-lifter out-performs his challengers from Greece or Bulgaria.
Undoubtedly, the end of the Cold War took away some of the drama of the US vs. the Soviet Union every four years. And though we are at war with terrorism, athletic competition featuring the US versus Iran, or the US versus Syria, just doesn’t offer a satisfying substitute for Uncle Sam vs. the Evil Empire.
Just as surely, athlete “free agency” (or something like it) would detract from the lure the Olympics hold for many viewers worldwide. But nationalism was never supposed to be part of the Games in the first place, and those five interlocking Olympic rings represent the five inhabited continents and the unity of humankind.
Besides, a decline in viewership might lead to a reduction in corporate sponsorship of the Games, which have become far too bloated and overly commercialized.
—————————————————————————Part III of this series will examine changing sports nationalities from the perspective of the athlete.