Olympians Switch Nationalities To Compete On World Stage

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There is a growing trend on the Olympic stage: athletes switching nationalities in order to compete. Some athletes are looking back at their ancestral history as a way to get into the games, while others are just looking for a country willing to grant them citizenship.

This year there are several stories of athletes switching countries, including South Korean speedskater Ahn Hyun-soo who became a Russian citizen and changed his name to Viktor Ahn to join the Russian speedskating team, after falling out with the South Korean skating federation.

Ahn has won five world championship titles, including three gold medals at the 2006 Olympics as a member of the South Korean team. He is arguably a worthy Olympic competitor. But is changing one's national allegiance the way to go?

Jeremy Hobson speaks with Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University, who says the Olympic Charter should do away with nationality requirements in order to allow the world’s best athletes a fighting chance.

Interview Highlights: Peter Spiro

Why Olympic athletes are competing for other countries

"It's increasingly common as states look to increase their representation at the games, and athletes look to find a way to the games when other avenues may be blocked. So athletes are discovering that they're eligible for citizenship in other countries, often through ancestry, countries are sometimes looking for athletes to represent them in the games, and it becomes a mutually attractive deal, really, by way of getting to the Olympics."

On speedskater Viktor Ahn

"So here's a competitor who clearly belongs in the Olympics. He's unhappy with his coaching and his support in South Korea, so he's looking to compete for a country where he's going to be happier competing for. And so he, in effect, shopped around for the state that was gonna give him the best support, that was gonna be most receptive, and that was going to be at the lowest hassle factor with respect to acquiring citizenship. So one problem with his considering the United States is that we don't have a fast track to citizenship for extraordinary athletes. They have to go through all the usual hoops, and those hoops can be pretty daunting, including a five-year residency requirement. In contrast, Russia — if you, I think the language is 'if you're to provide exceptional services to the state,' well, they can pretty much make you an instant citizen."

On his view that Olympians should be "free agents"

"As it is now, it's a little bit luck-of-the-draw. If you happen to have a grandparent who was born in a country whose citizenship you're eligible for, or if you were born in a country before you were adopted by an American, or if you have enough money to buy your extra citizenship, then you get a chance to compete. But that's not gonna be true for everybody, and so it's not really a level playing field as things are now. Why not just open things up so the best competitors make their way to the Olympics for one flag or another? "

"Ultimately, I think it's about the athletes and about having a good competition. We're no longer in the Cold War world in which the Olympics were kind of surrogate warfare. So I think nationalism is on the decline in any case. I think fans could handle this. After all, in our domestic sports leagues, we don't require that someone that plays for the Phillies or for the Red Sox or for the Yankees, that they actually be from Philadelphia or Boston or New York, and we still manage to cheer them on."


  • Peter Spiro, law professor at Temple University's Beasley School of Law.

This segment aired on February 14, 2014.


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