by | Feb 21, 1994 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

LILLEHAMMER, Norway — The second biggest fiasco of these Winter Olympics has nothing to do with figure skates, but rather, passports. It began last week with the Opening Ceremonies.

As per tradition, the first nation to enter the Olympic stadium was Greece. The crowd roared for the Greek flag and the athletes who followed — men and women who, presumably, have worked hard to represent their nation in the world’s greatest sporting event, right?

Well. Not so fast. Two of the first athletes into the stadium were Greg and Greta Sebald. They wore the Greek team jackets. They waved when the announcer bellowed “Greece!” But the Sebalds, who are brother and sister, only laid eyes on Greece two weeks before the Games, when they made their first visit to the country. The rest of their lives have been spent in Minneapolis.

The Sebalds are not Greek. They’re American. By every definition, they’re American. They were born in America. They were educated in America. They hold American citizenship. Presumably, they have voted in American presidential elections — at least they could have, if they wanted to.

Their only connection to Greece is their mother, who was born there. And because of the most archaic and foolish rule in the Olympic Games, the Sebalds and others like them are allowed to claim quick citizenship of a nation and represent that nation in the Olympics.

“Do you even know the Greek national anthem?” I asked Greg Sebald, an attorney in Minneapolis.

“Not the words,” he said, sheepishly, “but I could hum it for you.”

Wouldn’t that look great on the medal stand? Have bobsled, will travel 2 Not that there’s much chance of victory. This citizenship loophole seems to attract folks who want the kick of being in the Olympics, without putting in too much sweat. Take the Sebalds, for example. Greg says he was “inspired” while watching the 1992 Olympics, a USA-Italy hockey game.

“Most of the Italian players were from Canada,” he said. “I thought, why can’t I do that?”

Thus inspired, he chose a sport. He picked bobsled. “I thought it was neat,” he said. It’s also one of the easiest ways into the Olympics. You can’t learn to figure skate or speedskate in a year — not well enough to meet Olympic qualification. But get yourself a sled and keep it in the track, and you’re halfway home.

Which is what Sebald did. He made some calls to Greece, which didn’t have many bobsledders, considering “cold” in Greece is 60 degrees. He found a partner. They raced in a handful of competitions. They were in.

They finished 34th.

Greg also talked his sister into entering the Games. She chose luge. With all due respect, Greta Sebald does not look like a luger, or even an athlete. She is overweight, and on her first run in the luge competition she crashed badly and had to walk her sled over the line. She finished dead last.

How proud they must be back in Athens.

But she’s here, in the village, in the ceremonies, and so is Anne Abernathy, 40, another luger representing the Virgin Islands. Abernathy was born in Florida. She trains near Washington, D.C. She lists herself as an entertainer, although I don’t think she’s talking about her sliding.

She first tried to make the American team years back in Lake Placid, N.Y. People there tell me she wasn’t good enough. But by living in the Virgin Islands — an American territory — she only had to make the Virgin Islands team, which wasn’t hard, since the islands didn’t have one.

“I hope I inspire other kids from the Virgin Islands,” she said.

More likely other kids from Florida. It shouldn’t be a mom-and-pop operation

The master of this loophole might be a skier/investment broker named Connor O’Brien. He was born in Canada, but works on Wall Street in New York. In 1984, he skied in the Olympics for Great Britain — because his father was born in Belfast.

The following year, he skied for Canada in World Cup competitions.

At times — when nobody checked — he has skied for the United States in international races.

Here in Lillehammer, he skied the downhill for Estonia — thanks to his mother, who left there in 1944.

“It’s been a lot of work,” O’Brien said in a recent interview. I’ll bet. Just keeping those countries straight makes me tired.

Now, I have nothing against people born in a country going back to represent it — even if they now live somewhere else. But why can’t the Olympics close this mother/father loophole? There are athletes here who barely recognize the nation they represent. Think about a Dan Jansen, crying during the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then think about these passport-traders saluting their “home” flags. What a farce!

The Winter Games — with luge, bobsled, downhill skiing, sports with relatively lenient qualifying standards — are easy foil for loopholers who think they’re “sacrificing” by putting a few months into a sport.

But they do nobody proud. Not themselves. Not their nations. And they insult athletes who are here for the right reasons. The Olympics are not some fantasy camp, where you pay your money and you get your T-shirt.

The rule should be simple: You can compete for a nation only if you were born there or have been a citizen half your life.

Otherwise stay home and do something productive. Maybe learn the words to your national anthem.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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