For spectators, the Olympics have long been a source of national pride. But do the competitors actually care about the countries they represent?
An Olympic hammer thrower inadvertently brought that question to the fore last month when she turned her back on the U.S. flag after qualifying for the team. Gwen Berry, who is a two-time Olympian, said the flag and anthem don’t represent her because of racial and social injustices in America.
Berry faced backlash but didn’t lose her spot on the U.S. team. After the qualifying event, fellow hammer thrower DeAnna Price said, “I think people should say whatever they want to say. I’m proud of her,” according to The Associated Press.
Others, including many Republican leaders, felt Berry’s actions should have been disqualifying. At minimum, “you should believe in the country you’re representing,” said Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw.
The editorial board of the Washington Examiner advised Berry and other aggrieved athletes to “find another country that doesn’t offend them as much.”
Under certain circumstances, Olympic rules really do allow athletes to switch to a different country’s team. Should the policies be changed to encourage more patriotism at the Games?
Transfer of allegiance
The International Olympic Committee requires that athletes be citizens or nationals of the country they compete for. According to the Villanova Sports Law Blog, Rule 41 allows athletes with multiple citizenships to choose which country they want to represent. The law requires athletes to wait at least three years before changing to a different country, but there’s a loophole: The athlete can be released from his or her choice if both countries agree.
More than 200 nations will participate in the Tokyo Games, and each one has different laws that govern citizenship and nationals. But no matter where an Olympic-caliber athlete is applying, they may find it easier than the average person to get approved.
As such, both American athletes and those from other countries have used national status to join the Olympic teams of countries where they don’t live and then have competed against their own countries in the Games.
Five years ago, at the start of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Matt Vasilogambros examined what has been called the “transfer of allegiance” that goes on with some Olympic athletes. Writing for The Atlantic, he noted that pole vaulter Giovanni Lanaro was “born, raised, educated, and trained in Southern California,” but competed for Mexico in the 2008 Olympics.
Lanaro was able to do that because his mother was born in Mexico and the country only requires Mexican heritage to be on its teams. Lanaro told The Los Angeles Times, “I will always compete for Mexico. I will never compete for any other country.”
In his article, Vasilogambros noted that Foreign Policy magazine had explored the darker ramifications of rules that allow the changing of allegiance for sport, including charges that Qatar essentially was buying athletes by offering them citizenship and money. He wrote that athletes who competed for the U.S. after getting EB-1 visas, which are given to people with “extraordinary” abilities, had won eight Olympic medals for the U.S. between 1992 and 2004.
Further complicating matters is the fact that, in some sports, athletes can now qualify as individuals, rather than as part of their country’s official medal team.
For example, in women’s gymnastics this year, four U.S. gymnasts, including the University of Utah’s Grace McCallum, will compete as a team, while two others (including Utah’s MyKayla Skinner) will compete for individual medals as part of the U.S. delegation.
‘From whatever country he may come’
Some have argued that rules enabling athletes to switch countries or compete as individuals honors the original intent of the Games, which was for athletes to compete with athletes from all over the world, not on behalf of their countries.
Writing for The New York Times in 2012, Yale law professor Ian Ayres said countries should be able to grant dual citizenship for the sake of athletic competition, and that “countries should be free to compete for the services of the world’s best athletes.”
Ayes acknowledged that this change “would tend to reduce the importance of medal counts and nation pride” but would make the games more consistent with the Olympic charter’s vision.
Similarly, in 1968, Prince George William of Hanover, the brother-in-law of Queen Elizabeth II, argued before the International Olympic Committee that there should be no anthems or flags of individual countries at the Games. Instead, “the Olympic hymn should be played and the Olympic flag flown for every Victor, from whatever country he may come,” he said.
Writing for Slate about Prince George’s campaign, Ryan Murtha noted the proposal nearly passed: There were 34 votes in favor of the change and 22 against. The measure required a two-thirds majority, however, so “God Save the Queen” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” continue to play, and the world will be watching to see how Gwen Berry reacts to the U.S. anthem if she wins a gold medal.
For most Americans, none of this will matter as Team USA files into Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Friday morning, wearing navy blue jackets, blue jeans, scarves imprinted with a design like the U.S. flag, and belts and sneakers in red, white and blue.