Changing Home Teams: Olympians Shift Allegiances
Check out the stories of the athletes and coaches competing in the Summer Olympics and, in this era of globalization, you begin to wonder: Does nationalism mean anything anymore?
Take Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan, for instance. She is on the German gymnastics team. Americans J.R. Holden and Becky Hammon play for Russian basketball teams. Kenyan runners compete for Qatar and Bahrain.
We are entering the age of the global Olympian, in which a top-notch competitor can be bounced easily from one country to another like a shuttlecock. The practice of athletes and coaches representing countries other than their native ones dates back years, but the number of medal-seeking mercenaries is rising rapidly, says Olympic historian Bill Mallon.
"I call it the athletic diaspora," Mallon says. "It's mostly occurred since the breakup of the Eastern Bloc. Once athletes were free to go anywhere, they looked for the best deal, the best coaches, the best facilities."
There are other reasons for the increased free-range free agency, he says. In the 1980s, the NCAA lifted its restrictions on foreign-born athletes, which brought a large number of internationals to American sports teams. Since host countries are allowed to field teams for every sport in the Olympics and the country might not have a team for every sport, they often muster one.
And there are countries that produce more great athletes than they can use.
"Kenya has so many good distance runners," Mallon says, "but only three spots on their national team." That's a problem.
The solution: Find a country that needs distance runners. Stephen Cherono of Kenya changed his name to Saaeed Saif Shaheen and is competing for Qatar in Beijing. So is Albert Chepkurui, now known as Ahmad Hassan Abdullah.
The Olympic committee of Kenya refused to waive its three-year no-compete rule before the athletes could represent their chosen countries. In other cases, however, the naturalization of athlete-citizens — and their placement on new teams — has been fast-tracked.
Some 32 U.S. Olympic athletes were born in foreign countries. That's up from 27 in 2004, the first year the U.S. Olympic Committee began keeping track. Four U.S. table tennis players were born in China, a badminton star is originally from Vietnam, a kayaker was born in Britain and American tennis player Liezel Huber is from South Africa.
But a lot of athletes choose to change allegiance. Some who might not have made their country's teams take their talents elsewhere. J.R Holden, an American who grew up in Pittsburgh and played college hoops at Bucknell University, now plays basketball for Russia. So does American Becky Hammon, born in South Dakota and on the roster of San Antonio's WNBA team.
Other athletes join foreign teams for personal reasons. For 13 years, Oksana Chusovitina was a member of the gymnastics team of her native Uzbekistan. When her son was diagnosed with leukemia, Chusovitina moved to Germany so he could receive medical treatment. At the urging of the German coaches, she became a German citizen and joined the national team. This week she won a silver medal in the women's vault.
The entire U.S. men's 1,500-meter team is a geographic scramble. Bernard Lagat won two Olympic medals for his native Kenya before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2004. Lopez Lomong was born in Sudan, and Leonel Manzano is from Mexico.
Scads of athletes train and are coached in countries not their own. The Australians have a Chinese diving coach. Kirsty Coventry, the swimmer from Zimbabwe, swam for Auburn University in Alabama and now trains in Austin, Texas.
Nowhere is globalization more in evidence than in basketball. Players and coaches roam the planet as if it were a full court press. The head coach of the Chinese women's basketball team, Tom Maher, is Australian. The coach of the Chinese men's team, Jonas Kazlauskas, is Lithuanian. Chris Kaman of the Los Angeles Clippers is playing for Germany.
Of course, lots of international NBA players — including Yao Ming of China, Manu Ginobili of Argentina, Dirk Nowitzki of Germany and Pao Gasol and Rudy Fernandez of Spain — pepper the national teams at the Olympics.
When the games are over, however, many NBA players and other Olympians will return home — to the countries of their choosing — to be with families, friends and fellow athletes. Until the summer of 2012, when the games of the XXX Olympiad in London roll around.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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