Several years ago, during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic games, I wrote a Jurisculture post called Citizenship of Sport. That post looked at the many instances of athletes using dual nationality or acquiring citizenship in a state to which he/she had no connection in order to secure a spot on an Olympic team for a particular sport. The post argued that this was the result of a conception of citizenship in which an athlete dedicates himself/herself to a sport and forms an identity that is based on that sport and the international community of that sport rather than solely on nationality.
Since that post, examples of citizenship of sport have continued. By and large, they represent active choices by athletes involved in the elite echelons of sports. These choices continue to be the result of a myriad of situations, from dual nationality to the availability of funding, support for training and the ability to participate on a national team per se.
In 2016 and prior years, there has been an Independent Olympic Athlete team for athletes who would have been able to participate in the games but cannot because of political or other differences involving the country they compete for and the International Olympic Committee. The Independent Olympic Athlete team in itself is an embodiment of citizenship of sport in that the athletes involved have chosen to compete and become part of the larger international community of their sport rather than fail to compete because of their home country. This is a choice they make due to circumstances beyond their control – a choice to join a different community. They have become citizens of this community through their choice.
The 2016 Rio Summer Olympic games present a different aspect of citizenship of sport – the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team. The Refugee Olympic Team is composed of athletes who have been designated as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. These are athletes who have fled their home countries for a number of reasons related to politics and personal safety. They currently live in other countries, where they are not citizens, and cannot compete for them at the Olympic level. At the same time, they are unable to return to their home countries and cannot qualify for positions on their home countries’ Olympic teams. These athletes made the choice to compete on this team because otherwise they would have been excluded from competing at all. This too is a choice to join and participate in a different community.
Much has been made of the members of the Refugee Olympic Team – and rightly so. They have suffered personally and professionally, and their freedom has come at great cost. They also elevate the idea of citizenship of sport by demonstrating the ability of a sports community to grant citizenship while creating and reinforcing identity.
The travails of each member of the Refugee Olympic Team are harrowing and reinforce the strength of the human spirit, human endurance and humanity. However, the Refugee Olympic Team members state that at the Olympics they want to be seen as athletes and competitors rather than refugees or those who have suffered losses and traumas. They want to be regarded as heroes for their skills rather than for their pasts. The Refugee Olympic Team members want to – and do – belong to the same community of athletes as those who compete under country flags. In this way, at a time when they are seeking to define their futures, the members of the Refugee Olympic Team are citizens of an international community through sports.