Amber Hildebrandt - Friday Feb. 21, 2014 04:41 ET

Canada’s bobsled team just 1 example of ‘passport Olympians’

Switching citizenship to compete not a new phenomenon but likely to grow

Canada's bobsleigh team
Bobsleigh pilot Chris Spring is one of two team members who grew up abroad but are representing Canada in Sochi. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

When Canada’s four-man bobsleigh team vies for a medal in Sochi this weekend, only two athletes will be competing under their native flag.

Brakeman Lascelles Brown and pilot Chris Spring both grew up abroad, coming to Canada with a singular focus on their athletic careers. The two are part of the phenomenon of so-called “passport Olympians.”

Australia-born Spring made the decision to switch citizenship after his home country’s dismal three-medal performance at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and he’s unapologetic about the move.

“People want to fulfill their Olympic dream and it’s widely accepted now that if you want to switch sides, it’s fine,” Spring said last week in Sochi.

The sprinter-turned-bobsledder seemed thrilled to represent his new home. “Growing up, I never would have thought that I would be a bobsledder, let alone a bobsledder at the Olympics for Canada,” said the Calgary-based athlete.

His teammate, Brown, is another unlikely transplant from a sunny nation to a wintry one. The Jamaica-born athlete, who is considered one of the world’s best bobsleigh brakemen, has represented three nations.

Brown competed for his Caribbean island nation in 2002, then became a Canadian citizen just a month before the 2006 Turin Games, winning a silver for his new country. In Vancouver, he won bronze. For two seasons, he represented Monaco on the world stage before returning to train with the Canadian team for Sochi.

Brawn drain aids wealthy nations

But Spring and Brown are a rarity in Canada. Of the 221 Canadian athletes sent to Sochi, only 10 are foreign-born, many of them growing up in Canada. Only a handful appear to have sought out a Canadian passport for its Olympic potential.

The “brawn drain” typically benefits wealthier nations, like Canada, while small and developing countries lose out, but it can also go the other way.

Canadian coach Ted Nolan made a splash earlier in the week when the Latvian men’s hockey team he trained for Sochi forced Canada’s team to fight hard on Wednesday for a win in the quarter-finals.

“He loved coaching and that’s what he wants to do, so he took his skills, shopped around and found a place for himself and helped Latvia give us a really good run for our money,” said Janice Forsyth, director of the University of Western Ontario’s International Centre for Olympic Studies.

Canadian coach Brian Orser helped bring Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu his country’s first gold medal in men’s figure skating, leaving Canada’s Patrick Chan with silver in Sochi.

But Orser acknowledged his protege’s win felt bittersweet. “I got more emotional giving Patrick a hug than I did my own skater,” he admitted.

The issue of so-called “passport Olympians” came into the spotlight at Sochi after the unabashed hunt by South Korean speedskater Ahn Hyun-soo for a more supportive country.

He landed in Russia, renamed himself Viktor Ahn and won the country’s first short-track gold in the men’s 1000-metre event.

It’s unknown what financial incentive Russia offered, but the three-time gold medallist in the 2006 Turin Games got what he wanted – another chance to compete in the Olympics after his own country denied him a spot on its national team.

Athletes latch on to opportunity

Some suggested Ahn marked a new era of the free agent Olympians, but others aren’t convinced.

“I don’t think that’s a new phenomenon,” said Forsyth. “If you’re an athlete and your job is to be an athlete then you’re going to find a way to take that opportunity when it comes along.”

Passport swapping has been happening for decades in the modern Olympics.

One of the most famous and controversial examples comes from the 1936 Berlin Games when Great Britain’s hockey team surprisingly won the gold medal. Most of their players grew up in Canada.

At the 2014 Sochi Games, a colourful cast of “passport Olympians” includes a German prince competing in alpine skiing men’s slalom under Mexico’s flag, and a Staten Island, N.Y., couple representing Dominica in the cross-country ski team event. The couple was granted citizenship for performing philanthropic work.

Dominica is one of seven hot weather nations at Sochi that are new to the Winter Games, increasing involvement in the global sporting event to a record 88 nations.

Without athletes of their own to conquer the snow and ice of the Winter Games, many are forced to turn abroad.

Togo tracked down members of its diaspora in France and India, recruiting via Facebook. Paraguay found a skier born there, but adopted by an American family.

Tonga’s government ran a contest to find the island’s first winter Olympian. Fuahea Semi won and moved to Germany to learn to luge. But to pay for the cost, he changed his name to Bruno Banani – a German underwear company – to win sponsorship bucks.

"Flags of convenience"

U.K. athlete migration expert Joseph Maguire says switching citizenship is rational for athletes striving to be the best, but that’s not always the case.

“Effectively, the more mercenary are using the system as ‘flags of convenience,’ not ‘flags of our fathers’,” said Maguire, a Loughborough University sociology of sport professor. “These elite [athletes] don’t care who they compete for.”

In 2012, then International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said it was understandable if athletes switched because their home country lacked infrastructure, but switching for financial gain made him uneasy.

“Legally we can’t stop it but that doesn’t mean we love it,” said Rogge.

The Olympic Charter states that athletes must have citizenship of the country they represent. Beyond that, international sport federations can set extra rules.

Maguire believes the IOC should be tracking “passport Olympians” and foresees a rise in the numbers.

“Those with greater GDP will increasingly incorporate a migrant identification, recruitment and development strategy,” said Maguire.

Ultimately, Forsyth notes that much of the attention on the global movement of athletes stems from the nationalistic fervour brought out by the Olympics.

“People tend to get excited about it,” said Forsyth. “But we forget this takes place across the board in everything that we do.”

And those worried about financial incentives athletes might receive for competing under another flag should look at other sectors, said Forsyth.

“Why shouldn’t athletes get paid for their labours?” said Forsyth. “Sport is one of the biggest industries in the world.”

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