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Citizenship Flexibility at the Olympics Is a Good Thing—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on August 21, 2008.

Citizenship Flexibility at the Olympics Is a Good Thing
By Ian Ayres ’86

At a recent family sing-along in the upper peninsula of Michigan, we dusted off John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The lyrics made me think about the Olympics. Could we imagine the Olympics without national teams?

Imagine a world where the best athletes are able to compete. This is definitely not the current Olympic system. The country quota system keeps many of the best athletes home.

If I were the fifth-best backstroker in the world, I’d be upset that I couldn’t compete because of when I was born.

But what about team sports? Ay, there’s the rub. You may think that we’d have to do away with water polo and beach volleyball gold medals if we did away with national teams.

Maybe not.

The beginnings of a new trend are indirectly pushing us toward more meritocratic and less nation-centric Olympics. Citizenship is becoming more fluid for Olympic athletes and it’s improving the quality of competition at the games in both individual and team events.

Take Chris Kaman, the American-born center for the Los Angeles Clippers. Kaman’s parents and grandparents were also born in the U.S. But because of his great-grandparents, Germany granted Kaman citizenship — and he’s been playing hoops for the German Olympic team.

My first reaction to such shenanigans is outrage. But citizenship competition is improving the competitiveness of the Olympic games themselves. The U.S. basketball teams face better competition because people like J.R. Holden and Becky Hammon are playing for Russia.

And it’s not just basketball. Thank God that a kid who was born in Anaheim, Calif., and attended high school and college in California was able to make the Serbian swimming team because of his dual citizenship. Without mutable citizenship, Michael Phelps might not have been pushed to the narrowest of victories in the 100-meter fly.

Some countries don’t allow dual citizenship and would resist letting “their” athletes compete for another country’s team. But it is not necessary that “Olympic citizenship” even be tied to the legal citizenship of an athlete’s country of residence. Imagine a world where athletes are free to register to compete for a spot on any nation’s team.

A free market for Olympic citizenship would reduce the sometimes arbitrary control of national Olympic committees. National Olympic committees would need to be more responsive to athletes who had expanded choice. You could, of course, still root for the redeem team, but suddenly you might want to cheer for an Angolan team populated by N.B.A. players with dual citizenship.

You may say that I’m a dreamer. But remember what happened to amateurism. There was a time when it was unthinkable that professionals would be allowed to compete in the Olympics. Amateurism was a core part of what the Olympics were about. But analogous shenanigans and evasions from Communist block state-supported teams and Western block endorsements eroded the ban on professionals. In 1988, “the word ‘amateur’ disappeared from the Olympic Charter.” I, for one, think the Olympic movement has not suffered.

It would be a smaller change to expand citizenship flexibility. Article 6 of the Olympic Charter currently states:

The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries.

Letting athletes choose their national teams is a simple way of fulfilling this powerful idea.