June 15, 2008
Swapping Passports in Pursuit of Olympic Medals
By DUFF WILSON and ANDREW W. LEHREN
The New York Times
Marching into Beijing Stadium under the American flag this August will be a kayaker from Poland, table tennis players from China, a triathlete from New Zealand, a world-champion distance runner from Kenya and a gold-medal-winning equestrian from Australia.
All newly minted United States citizens.
Foreign-born and trained stars have been contributing to the United States’s Olympic medal count since 2000 in a modest but growing trend that blurs the national boundaries of the competition.
“We call them migrant laborers,” said Kevin B. Wamsley, a co-director of the Canada-based International Center for Olympic Studies. “Certainly, there’s a value for nations on medals.”
The United States is a magnet for attracting accomplished veteran athletes to switch citizenship, according to analysis by The New York Times. Since 1992, about 50 athletes who had competed in international events for their home countries — including 10 for China — became United States citizens and Olympians, winning eight medals, records show. This practice has implications for American athletes who are shut out of precious Olympic berths and has also been cause for conflict among competing nations.
Nine new citizens are on track to secure spots on the 600-athlete United States team for Beijing, including the distance runner Bernard Lagat, who won a medal for Kenya at the 2000 Sydney Games and another at the 2004 Athens Games.
The United States Olympic Committee says it does not recruit. “We think it’s just an offshoot of where athletes want to train and where they want to live and for whom they want to compete,” Jim Scherr, the chief executive of the committee, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a good thing. Nobody’s out there trading for athletes or offering financial rewards for an athlete to jump from one country to another.”
The International Olympic Committee imposes a three-year waiting period for an athlete who switches countries, although it will grant a waiver if the athlete’s native Olympic committee and international sports federation give permission. Two new Americans received the I.O.C. waiver this year: the equestrian Phillip P. Dutton, who won two gold medals for Australia; and the canoeist Heather Corrie, who is also a British citizen. (The Times’s statistics did not include dual citizens and athletes who immigrated as children.)
American-born competitors have grumbled about losing Olympic opportunities to newcomers and have been especially vocal when government officials have gone out of their way to expedite the eligibility of foreign athletes. Such fast-tracking does not appear to be happening for this Olympic cycle.
Few of the immigrants said they came here exclusively to continue their athletic careers. Mostly, they said, they came for love, opportunity, freedom and education. Nearly all have been welcomed by United States athletic federations.
They take advantage of EB-1 visas for aliens of extraordinary ability — meant for renowned scientists, artists and athletes — which moves them swiftly to the front of the line for permanent residency. The United States government issued 2,749 of these visas to foreigners, their spouses and children in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007, but the statistics do not indicate how many went to athletes.
An athlete who marries an American citizen can apply for citizenship three years after obtaining a green card as a permanent resident; it takes five years otherwise. Potential Olympians often miss the Games while waiting.
Filling in the Gaps
In years past, the United States had trouble competing in some Olympic sports but for immigrants, said Alicia J. Campi, a former research coordinator for the Immigration Policy Center in Washington. Among the sports she cited were field hockey and table tennis.
“This is an area where immigrants can help because they already have the skills they’ve developed through decades and centuries of culture that valued that particular sport,” Campi said in a phone interview. “One or two athletes can really change the possibility of the United States doing well in one of those nontraditional sports.”
Seven Olympic medals since 2000 have been won by five new citizens who had been elite performers for their home countries: the gymnast Annia Hatch from Cuba and the synchronized swimmer Anna A. Kozlova from Russia each won two in 2004; the sailor Magnus Liljedahl from Sweden and the tennis player Monica Seles from Yugoslavia in 2000 in Sydney, Australia; and the ice dancer Tanith Belbin from Canada in the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
The Nigeria-born Hakeem Olajuwon of the 1996 basketball Dream Team was the only foreign athlete to contribute to the United States medal count in the 1990s.
Kozlova finished fourth in the synchronized swimming duet for Russia at the 1992 Olympics and immigrated later that year. She missed the 1996 Games while waiting for a green card. “It was almost unbearable,” she said. She placed fourth for the United States in team and duet in 2000 and won two bronze medals in 2004.
“I came to live here,” Kozlova said in a phone interview. “I would have come here if I swam or not.”
The New Zealand-born triathlete Matt Reed, ranked 45th in the world, improved his chances of making the Olympics by becoming a United States citizen. New Zealand has two of the top four men in the sport, including his younger brother, Shane, ranked 35th. In Beijing, the brothers will be rivals.
While Shane struggles to make ends meet in New Zealand, Matt has found many corporate sponsors. He said, “I put in the hard work and sponsorships are definitely coming my way.”
In 2004, Matt Reed ran in both nations’ Olympic trials, finishing eighth in New Zealand and third in the United States, although he was not yet a citizen.
Reed moved here in 2001 for love, having met the American triathlete Kelly Rees. Married since 2003, they live in Boulder, Colo., with their two children. He became a citizen last December. Reed said that if he had not married an American, he would never have been able to qualify in time for the Games. “Being married is pretty much the only way I could have done it,” Reed said.
Hundreds of Chinese table tennis players have competed for other nations, but not all have changed citizenship. Since 1992, 9 of 18 members of the United States teams were foreign stars, including six from China.
Jun Gao, 39, is the best known. Once ranked third in the world and a 1992 silver medalist for China, she married an American in 1993 and left the sport.
Coaxed back to competition, Jun made the United States team in 2000 and 2004 but lost in early rounds.
Jun, ranked 27th in the world, calls Gaithersburg, Md., home, but she has lived virtually full time in Shanghai for six years.
“I come back twice a year, but not very often,” she said. “In China, there are so many world-class players. That’s why I am there. If I want to get a medal, I have to have world-class people to train with me.”
The International Table Tennis Federation instituted rules this year to restrict Chinese players from competing for other nations. It barred those 21 or older from competing in world championships but did not change its rules for the Olympics.
Congress Gets in the Act
Ice dancing, an Olympic event since 1976, produced the best-known Congressional maneuver, which eventually affected the overall standings at the 2006 Winter Games.
Three foreign-born ice dancers — the Canadian Belbin, and the Russians Maxim Zavozin and Sergei Magerovski — were granted expedited citizenship through special legislation signed by President Bush in December 2005.
Each had an American partner waiting to compete at the Olympic trials the next month.
Dean and Lynn Mitchell of Cortlandt, N.Y., the parents of on Olympic hopeful, wrote to their representatives in Congress in 2005 to try to block the special legislation.
Their objection fell short, and their son missed making the team when he finished ninth at the Olympic trials. The Mitchells did not return phone calls for comment.
Belbin and her partner, Ben Agosto of Chicago, became the darlings of American figure skating.
Their Olympic silver in 2006 ultimately gave the United States one more medal than Canada in the overall standings for sole possession of second place behind Germany.
Zavozin and his partner, Morgan Matthews of Chicago, failed to make the Olympic team in 2006, then split up. Matthews has found a new partner, Leif Gislason of Canada.
Facing citizenship delays at home, they have each applied for fast-track citizenship in Azerbaijan to skate for the same country by the 2010 Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Matthews, 21, followed a path carved by the American-born ice dancer Kristin Fraser, who represented Azerbaijan in the 2006 Olympics without ever visiting the country.
At least one athlete may yet turn to Congress to compete in the 2012 Games in London: the gymnast Charles León Tamayo, who won Cuba’s first medal at a world championship at age 20 in 2001. He defected to the United States in 2003 and, following advice from a pro bono lawyer, applied for asylum.
If Tamayo had waited one year after defecting and applied for relief under the Cuban Adjustment Act, he would have been eligible for a green card immediately, two to four years faster than the asylum process, said Amehd Camacho, a staff assistant to Representative Mario Díaz Balart, Republican of Florida.
Tamayo was ineligible for the 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams. To qualify for 2012, when he will be 31, he needs Balart’s help to persuade Citizenship and Immigration Services to let him apply for the Cuban adjustment. Camacho said Balart could sponsor legislation as a last resort.
“I come here and all I’m asking for is the opportunity,” Tamayo, who coaches gymnastics in Grand Junction, Colo., said in a phone interview. “I want to fight for my spot. I want to do what I can. But I can’t do that because of my citizenship.”
Legislation is not the only way foreign-born athletes have become United States Olympians. Olajuwon received assistance from Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor. Konstantin Starikovitch, a Russian weight lifter, won an arbitration case against the United States federation.
Greg Schouten, an American junior record-holder in weight lifting, just missed an Olympic spot because of Starikovitch.
“I was angry at the federation for a year or two,” Schouten said in a phone interview.
After the Olympics, he would see Starikovitch at a training facility in Colorado, but Schouten said: “We really never talked to each other. I never cared to.”
‘I Am International’
Yueling Chen, a 1992 gold medalist in race walking for China, gained a spot on the 2000 United States team after Bill Hybl, then the U.S.O.C. president, appealed to the Chinese Olympic Committee a month before the Games.
Chen said she was puzzled that China had wanted to block her. “I was a U.S. citizen,” she said in a recent phone interview. “The Games are international. I should belong to the whole world. I am international.”
But Joanne Dow, a national champion race walker from New Hampshire, disagreed with that concept. She said Chen’s immigration dashed her Olympic dream.
At the Olympic trials, Dow was recovering from minor knee surgery and finished fourth, missing the cutoff for the team. Chen, who finished second, made the team but performed poorly in Sydney.
“I don’t know her at all,” Dow said, “but to see her come in third to last — that disgusted me. There are a little bit of hard feelings.”
Dow finished second at the Olympic trials in 2004, but the United States was allotted one Olympic slot in her division. In July, the 44-year-old Dow, a three-time national champion, will try again to make her first Olympic team.
China is not the only country to express dismay over one of its athletes competing for the United States. Sports authorities in Kenya said they were upset to learn that Lagat was changing allegiance.
Lagat is expected to be the star of the United States track and field Olympic trials beginning June 27. Lagat, a resident here since 1996, gained his United States citizenship in 2004, three months before he won an Olympic silver medal in the 1,500 meters for Kenya, which does not allow dual citizenship.
Lagat has said he kept quiet about changing citizenship in 2004 because he would not have been able to run in the Olympics for either country.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 18, 2008
An article on Sunday about the way that foreign athletes switch citizenship and compete for the United States in the Olympics referred incorrectly to the immigration process, gave an outdated title for an expert and misstated the years in which a top distance runner won medals.
An athlete can apply for citizenship three years after obtaining a green card as a permanent resident if married to an American, or five years otherwise. Those are not the waiting periods for a green card.
Alicia J. Campi, who described the potential benefit of having foreign-born athletes compete for the United States, is a former research coordinator for the Immigration Policy Center. She left the center in 2007.
The distance runner Bernard Lagat, now a United States citizen, won a medal for Kenya at the 2000 Sydney Games and another at the 2004 Athens Games. He did not win both in 2004.