Picking winners: Olympic citizenship and the global race for talent.

Author:Shachar, Ayelet
 
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FEATURE CONTENTS I. THEORIZING THE TALENT-FOR-CITIZENSHIP EXCHANGE II. CITIZENSHIP MATTERS III. THE INTERNATIONAL FRAMEWORK GOVERNING OLYMPIC CITIZENSHIP A. Institutional Structures B. The Olympic Dream C. Eligibility Rules IV. THE GLOBAL RACE FOR TALENT AND LEX SPORTIVA V. THE CORE PLAYERS IN THE TALENT-FOR-CITIZENSHIP EXCHANGE A. The Athletes B. The Recruiting Nation C. The Source Country VI. "THROWING SAND IN THE WHEELS" OF OLYMPIC CITIZENSHIP TRANSFERS A. Setting a Standard for Recognition of Hasty Citizenship Grants B. Regulated Transfers and Solidarity Obligations CONCLUSION In our increasingly globalized and competitive world, citizenship is being rewritten, and radically so. This is evident along multiple axes: the revival of cultural and religious markers of inclusion/exclusion, (1) the revamping of border control, (2) the securitization of citizenship, (3) and the more active role played by both sending and receiving countries in bringing economic considerations to bear on labor migration policies, (4) to mention but a few notable examples. The focus of my discussion is on this last category, zooming in primarily on the international mobility of the highly skilled. Here, terminology for the accretion of human capital, once the exclusive purview of economists and head-hunting firms, has infiltrated and transformed the realm of citizenship. Recognizing that "[t]he key element of global competition is no longer the trade of goods and services or flows of capital, but the competition for people," (5) countries seeking to attract Nobel Prize contenders, gifted technology wizards, acclaimed artists, promising Olympians, and other high-demand migrants have come to realize the attractive power of citizenship. This represents a significant shift in the conception of citizenship--turning an institution steeped with notions of collective identity, belonging, loyalty, and perhaps even sacrifice into a recruitment tool for bolstering a nation's standing relative to its competitors. The striking transformation of citizenship is the subject of this inquiry.

Consider the case of Becky Hammon, a superstar point guard from the American heartland. Although she finished as runner-up for the Most Valuable Player title in the WNBA in 2007, Hammon was not short-listed for the U.S. women's Olympic basketball squad for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. (6) Instead of staying home to root for her national team, Hammon chose to pursue her lifelong dream of playing in the Olympics. Despite not being of Russian descent or a full-time resident, Hammon (who had previously played professional basketball in Russia) was fast-tracked for Russian citizenship in a process expedited by the country's officials. (7) With her brand new passport in hand, Hammon could compete in the Olympics for Russia. There is no denying that Hammon had nothing but the most tenuous ties to Russia before she was granted citizenship in an expedited process. Yet this legal exchange made her into an official representative of the recruiting nation. Some saw this exchange as representing an emerging free-agency era in the Olympic Games: a new world order in which the athlete is at center stage, empowered by the fierce competition among national teams to attract individuals with abundant talent. (80) Others saw it as an act of strategic behavior: placing oneself ahead of one's country. (9) But the distributional matrix of opportunities and responsibilities that attaches to Olympic citizenship goes well beyond any specific individual. It implicates the multiple stakeholders engaged in a global race for talent: mobile and worldly top performers, sending and receiving countries, as well as various regional and international sports regulating bodies.

The case of Becky Hammon, despite the media attention it has received, is far from unique in the world of Olympic citizenship. (10) Chris Kaman, center for the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers since 2003, was born and raised in the United States, attended college at Central Michigan State, and (by his own admission) does not speak German. But his great-grandparents were German, a fact that entitled Kaman to acquire German citizenship. He was approached by the German sports authorities and granted a German passport in July 2008 in an expedited process, all in time to compete for the German national team in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. (11) In another instance, several weeks before the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, President Bush signed a congressional bill that included a special provision granting citizenship for aliens of extraordinary ability. (12) This legal maneuver allowed ice dancers Tanith Belbin, born and raised in Canada, and Maxim Zavozin, born and raised in Russia, to represent the United States. (13) Belbin and her partner secured a silver medal for the United States. (14) Zavozin went on to become a Hungarian citizen in January 2010, just in time to represent Hungary in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. (15)

The United States, more than any other country in the world, has gone out of its way to perfect the technique of attracting accomplished athletes by "swapping passports in pursuit of Olympic medals." (16) However, the practice has become more common than ever. It is no longer limited to the world's traditional sports-powerhouse nation. Jamaican-born Merlene Ottey is one of the most decorated female track athletes of all time. She has won nine Olympic medals in six Olympic Games--spanning from Moscow 1980 to Sidney 2000 (and winning numerous world championship rides in between)--all while representing Jamaica. (17) In 2002, Ottey acquired Slovenian citizenship and went on to compete for Slovenia in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Since 2004, she has represented Slovenia at international competitions. (18) In 1986, the World Champion in weightlifting, Bulgarian Naim Suleimanov, was lured by Turkish officials to defect and move to Turkey. He then applied for Turkish citizenship, changed his name to Naim Suleymanoglu, and won gold medals for Turkey in the 1988, 1992, and 1996 Olympic Games. Reports suggest that the Turkish government paid approximately one million dollars to the cash-strapped Bulgarian regime to allow Suleymanoglu to compete for Turkey in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. (19)

And there is no end in sight to the practice. The Azerbaijan women's field hockey team caused outrage when the squad that appeared for the European Championship included no less than six South Korean players. (20) Officially, however, no rules were broken: the South Koreans had been given Azerbaijan passports in time to qualify for the games. Or consider the case of Italy, the host of the 2006 Torino Winter Games, which resorted to fast-tracked citizenship grants in order to build up its own squad: no fewer than ten of Italy's national hockey team players were Canadian hockey players who had not made the cut on their home team. (21) They held only minimal ties to Italy; some of them had never visited the country. This has raised the ire of sporting officials. The Director of the International Ice Hockey Federation was unequivocal in rejecting the practice: "[Y]ou shouldn't be able to just grab a passport and represent a country at an event." (22) Alas, once the recruiting nation (Italy, in out example) was willing to interpret flexibly its own standard membership requirements by turning these players into citizens, the governing transnational sporting bodies had little ability to object to the passport swap. The players at issue had never represented another country at an official international competition.

The increasingly common practice of governments "picking winners" through fast-tracked, strategic grants of citizenship--what I will call Olympic citizenship--becomes acutely visible when the intersection of sports and nationality is placed center stage. (23) The significance of this new reality, the opportunities it creates, and the risks it poses have not been adequately appreciated to date. Whereas the prevailing view is to treat entitlement to membership as an idealized expression of collective identity and shared civic values, Olympic citizenship offers us an important corrective. (24) It shines a light on the vital capacity and increased willingness of governments--the official executors of the membership transaction--to utilize selectively the lure of citizenship when it comes to advancing what are, in essence, reach-to-the-top "leapfrogging" goals. When it comes to Olympic citizenship, rather than diminishing the importance of state control over membership entitlements, more and more countries are actively engaged in a multiplayer, multilevel game that influences their willingness to reconfigure the boundaries of political membership by engaging in form-over-substance, just-in-time citizenship grants. (25) This is a collective action problem that calls for a collective response: it is in the interest of each competing nation to engage in passport swaps, but it is to the detriment of the whole system of fair play and sportsmanship to permit such unregulated and aggressive talent "poaching."

The Olympic citizenship trend thus represents the rise of a more calculated approach to citizenship in which a premium is placed on individuals with extraordinary ability or talent, detaching it from the conventional genuine-ties interpretations. In this new era, governments have come to recognize that the power to issue fresh membership affiliation is one of their biggest assets in a competitive global environment. On this account, the ability to employ discretionary, fast-tracked citizenship grants is a crucial addition to the policy toolbox of advancing the host country's stature, influence, and visibility in the world arena. Indeed, membership goods increasingly serve as a commodity in the hands of issuing governments, allowing them to shore up their respective human capital reservoirs by going on a cross-border...

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