BEIJING – If it isn’t about representing your country, why do they play the national anthem when you win? It is time, once and for all, to end the hypocrisy over who competes for whom in the Olympics. Athletes who switch countries as if ripping off one sweaty T-shirt and pulling on another have made a sham of the whole process.
There have been many examples of this in Beijing, from basketball players to sailors, but none worse than the other day at the women’s beach volleyball competition. Russia was pitted against Georgia, which, of course, also is happening on a far more serious stage, one of war.
Journalists sensing a “see the world through the prism of sport” angle, raced to an event they usually would ignore to chronicle the battle.
And in dramatic fashion, the Georgian pair rallied to defeat the Russians, making the news media salivate with metaphors. But in the post-match news conference, when asked about the issue, the Russian team smirked.
“We were not actually playing against the Georgian team,” Natalia Uryadova told the media. “We were playing against our Brazilian friends here.”
And she was right. For all their sudden declarations of patriotism, the “Georgian” team consisted of two Brazilians who were offered citizenship only because of their talent. The two women, according to reports, have visited Georgia only twice in their lives. Going for international hoops
Basketball fans are familiar with the stories of Chris Kaman and Becky Hammon, two Middle Americans who are competing, respectively, for Germany, a country we battled in World War II, and Russia, a sworn enemy for much of the 20th Century. Neither was born there. Neither can sing the national anthem. Both were offered quick citizenship because their talents could help those countries’ chances.
And both jumped at it.
“Some people,” Hammon said in an interview, “get caught up with the patriotism aspect of it.”
Yeah. Some people. Like the ones who invented the games. But today, apparently, the Olympics exist to provide nations for athletes to compete for, not the other way around. Use a grandfather’s lineage. Use a pro contract to leverage a passport. Whatever gets you in. Last week, Togo won its first Olympic medal, thanks to a French kayaker who apparently has been to Togo once – as a child.
And how about 18-year-old Haley Nemra, who recently worked at a pizza parlor in Washington State, but is competing for the Marshall Islands in the 800-meter run. The Marshall Islands?
“I’m so excited they even wanted me,” she told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “especially since I’ve never lived there.”
Athletes like Nemra use loopholes – in her case, a father who was born in the Marshall Islands – to get into the games. All you need are the proper papers. And nations, especially small ones, are often quick to provide them for a chance at seeing their colors displayed on the international stage.
Especially if it’s on the medal stand. Everybody seems to do it
But that’s exactly where this hypocrisy becomes so hypocritical. I asked Bernard Legat, a gold-medal hopeful for the United States in the 1,500 meters, how people in Kenya would feel if he stood on the victory stand this week. After all, he had won medals for that nation, his homeland, in the two previous Olympics before taking American citizenship.
“They might have lot of mixed feelings back in my country seeing the American flag being raised instead of the Kenyan flag,” he said. “ For me personally, I don’t feel any shame. My loyalty is for my country that I’m representing right now.”
Which pretty much says it all. Look. Either the Olympics are a unique event in which you have to have been born and raised in a country to compete, or they should just let anyone compete for anyone, like a pro sports league. Right now the lines are so blurred it’s as if a painter’s palette got soaked and all the colors bled into each other.
There was a photo last week of Hammon, born in South Dakota, holding her hand over her heart amid her new Russian basketball teammates. She was wearing the red Russian uniform, but they were playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
If that doesn’t make you want to shut this whole thing down, nothing will.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).