Saturday, February 20, 2010

Citizenship of Sport

The Vancouver Winter Olympic games have raised many interesting issues, which will be discussed in a series of blog posts. The first matter which I would like to focus on, due primarily to its cross-cutting nature, is the relationship between citizenship and sport which has been manifested during the Vancouver games.

Traditionally, the Olympic games are considered showcases of both national pride and the unity that is shared by athletes regardless of their nationality or beliefs. This duality was apparent during the Opening Ceremonies, when athletes processed as part of national contingents and later collectively took the Olympian’s creed, which cuts across nationality to stress the shared beliefs and goals of those talented athletes who are able to call themselves Olympians. A touching demonstration of the universality of the Olympic spirit were the arm bands worn by athletes from all nationalities in order to honor Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger who died during a practice run prior to the Opening Ceremonies.

In addition to these public and non-controversial manifestations of the universality of athletics, the Vancouver games – and the athletes who have participated in them - have also highlighted the more controversial idea of citizenship of sport, by which I mean the athlete’s identity as an athlete trumping his or her identity as a citizen or national of a particular state. During the Opening Ceremonies, there were a remarkable number of athletes who were competing for states not usually associated with winter sports. The stories of these athletes were noteworthy in that some are dual nationals and, while they learned their sport in one country of their citizenship, they nevertheless chose to represent the other country of their citizenship as Olympians.

As the games unfolded during week one, other stories of citizenship of sport have emerged. Some continue to reflect the dichotomy of dual nationals and their choice of state to represent. Others, however, are more unusual. Yuko Kavaguti is part of the pairs ice skating team of Kavaguti and Smirnov of Russia. Japanese by birth and ethnicity, Yuko had a dream to be an Olympian and reached out to a famed Russian figure skating coach as a teenager in order to pursue that dream. However, the Japanese pairs figure skating program could not provide Yuko with the support or training she needed to pursue her goal and so she moved to Russia to train, became a Russian citizen and competed for Russia at Vancouver. In the process, she was required to renounce her Japanese citizenship and change her name to sound somewhat more Russian. She did all of this because she is, I would argue, a citizen of sport.

Similarly, Allison Reed is a fifteen year-old ice dancer who, along with her partner Otar Japaridze, is competing as part of the Georgian Olympic team at Vancouver. On the surface, there is nothing unusual about this. However, Allison is an American, who still resides in the US and only recently received Georgian citizenship as well. Her two older siblings are also ice dancers and compete for Japan, which is understandable given that their mother is Japanese. Allison, however, competes for Georgia because her ice dancing partner is Georgian.

This phenomenon of switching nationalities is not unique to the Olympic games, however it is particularly noteworthy, and arguably glaring, in the Olympic context. By drawing attention to these examples and to the concept of citizenship of sport I in no way wish to reflect on the propriety of citizenship of sport, other than to assert that it is likely easier to condemn the decisions made by athletes than to try to understand them. My purpose in writing this posting is to propose the existence of the concept of citizenship of sport and to suggest that it is likely to continue on in athletic competitions, especially as interactions between athletes and geography become more common, since, for example, many athletes compete and train in other countries than their country of nationality or citizenship. Citizenship of sport implies a new conception of societal belonging, replacing the traditional emphasis on nationality and national identity with the idea of being a skier, figure skater, or other athlete. It reflects the effort and dedication which athletes put into perfecting their craft, and asserts that the ability to display a life’s work of dedication and, typically, self-sacrifice should not be bounded by national rules and selection processes which might deny the athlete the opportunity to compete and pursue his/her dreams.

Certainly, nationality and citizenship are very personal considerations for anyone, particularly those who grew up dreaming that they would have the chance to compete for their country on a grand international scale such as the Olympic games. Citizenship of sport is no less personal, in that it encompasses the devotion of athletes to their sports and their desire to showcase that devotion, talent and sacrifice to the world. In the majority of cases, traditional concepts of citizenship and nationality co-exist with citizenship of sport to the benefit of the athlete and his/her country. However, it is important to acknowledge the existence of citizenship of sport and that it exists in a separate – though often intersecting – plane than traditional notions of citizenship and nationality.

For information on the athletes mentioned above, see:

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