Olympics Without Borders

Watching the Olympic ice dancing competition this past weekend, I was surprised to see Chris and Cathy Reed representing Japan. I know little about ice dancing, but I do recognize the national origins of names. Their teammate Yazuru Hanyu, with a distinctly Japanese name, won the gold medal for Japan in men's figure skating. Chris and Cathy Reed, according to their Olympic bios, are a brother and sister, born in Michigan. Their ties to Japan are through their mother, who is Japanese; their father is American. They train in Hackensack, New Jersey, a blue-collar town popularized by Billy Joel in "Movin Out." Aside from representing Japan, Cathy skated for Georgia in the 2010 Winter Olympics and for Israel at the 2013 World Championships.

Another ice dancer, Stefano Caruso, was born in Italy, as one might surmise from his name, and is a university student in Bergamo. Yet he is skating for Germany in the Sochi Olympics, having conveniently received German citizenship last year. The Israeli ice skating team consists of Andrea Davidovich, born in Vermont, and Evgeni Krasnopolski, born in Ukraine.

The International Olympic Committee, in its charter, has clear nationality rules for athletes, and I have no doubt that the all of the athletes have abided by these rules. Yet this "nationality fluidity" may not be consistent with one of the goals of the IOC: "To oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes." There is obvious political and commercial benefit in representation in the Olympic for athletes and countries, especially if the athletes win medals. Does it violate the "spirit of the Olympics" for athletes to apply for a country's citizenship solely to compete on its Olympic team? Or for countries to offer citizenship to a prized athlete?

The Olympics is recognized as one of the pinnacles of sport. Earning a spot on an Olympic team is a dream of many athletes, even if their medal chances are nonexistent. Within larger countries, the competition for earning a spot on the team is much more fierce just based on the numbers of athletes competing. So why not secure citizenship in a smaller country, through family connections or money, as a means of competing in the Olympics, the phenomenon of "passport swapping"? Countries may be just as guilty as the athletes. A country like Thailand is not known for winter sports based on its climate and location. Yet it can be represented in the Winter Olympics by skier Vanessa Vanakorn, born in Singapore, raised in England, but holding a Thai passport through her Thai father. Or Russian speed skater Victor An, who prior to 2011 was South Korean Ahn Hyun-Soo, now a Russian citizen and gold medalist for the Olympic host country.

Men's ice hockey provides yet another example of commercial interest -- the National Hockey League -- trumping national interest. Of the twelve countries competing in the Winter Olympics, some are made up entirely of NHL players, with each NHL team sending players to the Olympics. This is like taking the entire NHL, shuffling the players into different teams, and playing a two-week tournament. But at least these hockey players compete for teams based on their nationality.

With nationality and citizenship changing as easily as political party affiliation, has the concept of national teams lost all meaning? In professional sailing, the Americas Cup has no nationality rules. The current champions, Oracle Team USA, owned by American Larry Ellison, had only one American on its team. My home team, the Denver Broncos, have only two players on their active roster from Colorado. Perhaps it is time that the Olympics acknowledges article 6 of its charter, "The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries." The future games could be "Olympics Without Borders", patterned after U.S. professional sports. Teams would represent countries in name only, free to recruit the best athletes to their teams. And the athletes could compete for any country regardless of where they were born. Global citizens, one and all. Kumbaya.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based surgeon, was a lightweight rower in college, before that became an Olympic sport. Twitter @retinaldoctor.

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