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A Competition Among the Best—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was posted on newyorktimes.com on July 26, 2012.

A Competition Among the Best
By Ian Ayres ’86

This summer, hundreds of athletes will qualify to participate in the Olympics as recently minted citizens (or dual citizens) of countries with which they have had scant prior connection. These “transfers of allegiance” seems at first outrageous -- even when the U.S. team is a beneficiary. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m attracted to the idea.

The Olympics should embrace a more competitive citizenship market where individual nations would have an unfettered right (but not the obligation) to grant dual citizenship to consenting athletes from anywhere in the world. A particular country could choose to discriminate on the basis of nationality and thus not compete for the services of foreign athletes. But countries should be free to compete for the services of the world’s best athletes.

Letting countries compete would enhance meritocracy. No longer would Rajon Rondo be prohibited from playing because of the accident of where he was born. Citizenship competition would helpfully reduce the sometimes arbitrary power of home-country Olympic committees. Just as the abolition of the reserve clause in baseball emancipated athletes from team ownership, the elimination of the tie between legal and Olympic citizenship would emancipate athletes from national ownership.

The decision of a country to grant a particular athlete citizenship should be an internal affair of that country granting citizenship. International sports federations would be able to impose a variety of traditional qualifying standards (for example, those regarding minimum age, non-drug use, qualifying times, etc.), but the federations would not be able to regulate citizenship.

A move toward more alienable citizenship would tend to reduce the importance of medal counts and nation pride, but in a way that fulfills the Olympic charter’s vision of the games as “competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries.”