November 28, 2005

The Professionalization of Nationality

During the Athens Olympics, a bit of a flame war erupted between some South African swimmers and their national federation. After their world-record performance in the 4 × 100 m relay, swimmers Ryk Neethling and Roland Schoeman were critical of Swimming SA for their lack of financial support; federation president Gideon Sam retorted that "if they want to swim for Uganda, then they must go."


It wasn't Uganda, but Qatar that came calling, with an offer of more than a million Canadian dollars per year for three years. Neethling has reportedly declined. It appears that Schoeman is trying to use the Qatari offer as leverage with Swimming SA, who don't have that kind of money but are hoping that a sponsor with deep pockets will make their star athlete a counter-offer that he can't refuse.

If you're waiting for Schoeman to "do the right thing," I'd suggest that you don't hold your breath. After Swimming SA came up with a reward of about $20,000 Canadian (112,500 rand) for his Olympic performance in September 2004, Schoeman barely paused to give thanks before he lashed out at the National Olympic Committee of South Africa:

We are still waiting for NOCSA to come up with their incentives. In Sydney 2000 the incentives for a gold medal was a million rand, a silver 500,000 rand and a bronze 250,000 rand, but we are still waiting to hear from [NOC president] Sam Ramsamy. I wanted to buy a house, but that's not going to happen. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Poor Roland. I hope he finds a nice place in Qatar. Maybe he can also negotiate a marriage of convenience to a pathetically desperate ABBA fan with a wedding obsession and a heart of gold.

OK, enough athlete bashing. This is not the first time that something like this has happened, and it won't be the last. And what's so wrong with changing citizenship, anyway? Maybe my feeling of disgust for Roland Schoeman is misguided. Let's get on to the facts, and hopefully some discussion.

The Facts

The Olympic Charter states (Rule 42 and Bye-law thereof):

Any competitor in the Olympic Games must be a national of the country of the [National Olympic Committee] which is entering such competitor. … A competitor who has represented one country in the Olympic Games, in continental or regional games or in world or regional championships recognised by the relevant IF, and who has changed his nationality or acquired a new nationality, may participate in the Olympic Games to represent his new country provided that at least three years have passed since the competitor last represented his former country.

The IOC, obviously, has no control over the process of changing citizenship; if Qatar wants to fast-track the process for world-class athletes, that's the business of the Qatari government. But the three-year waiting period won't begin at the date of citizenship; it will begin on the date of Schoeman's last "world or regional championships" appearance. In that sense, then, the citizenship process itself is irrelevant. If Schoeman switches countries, the waiting period will begin at the 2005 World Championships, which were held in July. The Beijing Olympics will be held from August 8 to August 24, 2008, so he would still be eligible to compete for a "new" country at the next Olympics.

Outside of the Olympic games, sport international federations (IFs) are free to set their own rules. Some IFs require full citizenship, and some do not. In the case of swimming, FINA's general rules state:

When a competitor represents his/her country in a competition, he/she shall be a citizen, whether by birth or naturalisation, of the nation he/she represents, provided that a naturalised citizen shall have lived in that country for at least one year prior to that competition. … Any competitor changing his affiliation from one national governing body to another must have resided in the territory of and been under the jurisdiction of the latter for at least twelve months prior to his first representation for the country. Any application for change of affiliation must be approved by FINA.

So here FINA is imposing a one-year wait, and would also require Schoeman to take up residence in Qatar during the waiting period. If he became a citizen of Qatar tomorrow, he couldn't compete in any FINA-sponsored events — including the world short-course championships in April — for a year.

The Discussion

If Schoeman switches nationality, then presumably he will be under contract with the Qatari NOC, for a three-year term. He will be receiving compensation for his citizenship, and in return he will be competing exclusively for Qatar. In other words, he will be tied to the Qatari NOC the same way that a professional football player is tied to his club.

There is at least one major difference, of course. Although Schoeman could be bought, with his consent, I have to presume that his contract could not be legally sold to a third party. If his performance in 2007 is not up to his usual standards, could the Qataris trade his services to, say, the United Arab Emirates for a beach volleyball team and a hurdler to be named later? The IOC's eligibility rules might appear to inhibit athlete "trades" except in the first year of the quadrennial cycle; however, another IOC By-Law states that the IOC can reduce or eliminate the three-year wait if the NOCs and the IF are in agreement. So the waiting period may not really be a serious impediment to trades.

But even leaving trades aside, this amounts to a very free market, where NOCs compete for a scarce resource (world class athletes), and the athletes are free agents that can sell their services to any bidder they choose. There are various outside factors that influence the market, of course. For example, there are many non-sport factors that will influence the choice of nationality, including standards of living and culture. Athletes would weigh these "intangibles" against the money being offered when choosing their NOC.

It is important to point out that what I am envisioning above is not prevented by any of the current rules of the Olympics. That is, all of the world's NOCs could immediately start buying athletes on the free market, and nobody could stop it! So why doesn't it happen more often? I think that there are a number of factors at play here. First of all, elite sport is usually supported directly or indirectly by government funding; governments continue this arrangement only as long as there is some (real or imagined) benefit to their "own" citizens. Most western governments, certainly, would be reluctant to support open buying of "foreign" athletes. Furthermore, many governments would find it politically difficult to grant insta-citizen status to elite athletes when "real" immigrants face a long and arduous application process. And most amateur athletes have strong feelings of loyalty to their country, which provides a fairly high psychological barrier to changing nationality. I suspect that this is why Schoeman is waiting for South Africa's offer before making his move.

For my own part, I find myself feeling very annoyed at Roland Schoeman and the Qatari NOC. On an emotional level, I feel that allowing national Olympic committees to buy athletes is a bad thing. However, I struggle with some aspects of the argument. In particular, some people will argue that the nation-against-nation organization of the Olympics is at best useless, and at worst a deliberate conspiracy by the IOC to promote nationalist sentiment for its own profit. I feel that there is something good and useful about competing for your country, but doubtless the detractors will say that I have been too long indoctrinated in the system. I'd like to hear some discussion on this (which is what that "Comments" link is for).

As further food for thought, here are some other examples of nation-switching in recent history.

  • During the apartheid era, South Africa was not recognized by the IOC and South African nationals therefore could not compete at the Olympics. Zola Budd became a British citizen and competed in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
  • A Kenyan long-distance runner might rank in the top 10 in the world and be unable to make the Kenyan team. Some Kenyans get around this problem by claiming Ugandan citizenship.
  • Several top Kenyan athletes have been purchased by Qatar already. In this case, the financial gain can be the difference between poverty and security for the athlete. For example, Stephen Cherono became a Qatari citizen (and changed his name to Saif Saeed Shaheen) for a lifetime monthly stipend of $1000.
  • Russian pole vaulters Tatiana Grigorieva and her husband competed for Australia in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It is possible that there were direct payment incentives offered, although I have not found any confirmation of that theory. In Australia, however, Grigorieva became a minor celebrity and parlayed her silver medal and good looks into a lucrative career as a "model."
  • Yet another Kenyan runner, Bernard Lagat, became a US citizen in 2005 (or was it 2004?). Lagat has been living in the US for almost ten years.
  • US Olympic champion Sarah Hughes has hinted that she may consider skating for Canada in 2010. Her motivation for such a move is unclear, but she holds dual citizenship.

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