London Olympics: Athletes not representing the land of their birth or residency

Olympic athletes are not relegated to represent the land of their birth or residency but where the odds of winning are greater, familial loyalty lay and perks like naturalization are offered. Photo: Smiley N. Pool/Associated Press

WASHINGTON, DC, August 10, 2012 – Leon Manzano held both the Mexican and the American flags when he won his gold medal in the 1500 meter race in London on Tuesday.

Manzano is one of over 40 foreign-born athletes representing the United States in these London Olympic games.  All are American citizens.  But some of these athletes find themselves being called “sell outs” by members of their native land when they choose to represent the US.

That was the case for US 200 meter Gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross.  Her parents relocated from their native Jamaica when Richards-Ross was just 12 years old because they realized she had a promising running career. They were right. The Kingston-born immigrant graduated from a Fort Lauderdale high school with a 4.0 average and was accepted into the National Honor Society before representing US in the Athens Olympics in 2004, and breaking records and winning top spots in various world track competitions.

Still, on social media platforms like YouTube and bulletin board communities, some Jamaicans, Jamaican Americans and Jamaicans living abroad have called her a sell-out for not running for Jamaica.

One commenter said Richards-Ross was a traitor for “representing a predominantly white country with more than 10 times the size of the Jamaican population,” and pointed out that this year’s Olympic 200 meter Gold medalist, “Kirani James lives and goes to school in the States, yet he ran for his country Grenada, and mouthed the words of his national anthem in front of the entire world. What does Sanya sing when she is on the podium accepting her gold medal? Certainly not the Jamaican national anthem. How can you call her a Jamaican?”

On one hand, it would make sense for an athlete who grew up for her most formidable years in the United States, has developed an “American” accent, and identifies foremost with America to give back to the nation that gave her opportunity and sponsored her.

For Richards-Ross, given the amazing talent among track athletes in Jamaica, she may even have had a better chance at making the US Olympic team than the Jamaican team anyway.

Sanya Richards-Ross of the United States waves the American flag after winning a gold medal in the women’s 400-meter race at the Olympics in London. - Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Athletes that live in, attend college and work in the United State as permanent residents or dual citizens like Kirani do make the opposite case. Certainly, their winning can be a source of pride for their native land which, compared to the US, may have had limited opportunities on the world stage to have pride in a native son. 

There are plenty like Kirani who run for Jamaica; For example, University of Arkansas alum Veronica Campbell-Brown runs for  Jamaica, earning a bronze medal in the 100 meter race Wednesday.  

Other nations have American residents coming back home to represent them as well.  West Palm Beach resident and dual citizen, Melissa Ortiz represented Colombia.  South Floridian swimmers Esau Simpson swam the 100 meter freestyle for his native Grenada and Branden Whitehurst swam the 100-meter freestyle for the Virgin Islands.

Arizona University students Regina George ran the 400 meter for her native Nigeria. Ivanique Kemp ran the 100 meter hurdles for Bahamas, Alistair Cragg represented Ireland in the 5,000 meters and Tina Sutej represented Slovania in the Pole Vault competition.

Several Louisiana State University and Louisiana students represented other nations as well including David Andersen for Australia,  Pops Mensah-Bonsu for Great Britain, Al-Farouq Aminu for Nigeria, and Alex Garcia for Brazil. 

Then there are the American-born athletes who are unable to get on the US Olympic team and use their lineage to nab a spot on other nations’ teams.  US-born and raised Recella Hammon represented Russia in basketball as did Michigan bred American Chris Kaman who used his great-grandparents German citizenship to nab a spot on the German team.

But is it all fair?

Rule 41 of the Olympic Charter requires all athletes to hold citizenship in the country for which they compete. However, many athletes play for countries to which they have little or no emotional attachment, “sometimes for countries they have never even visited,” law professor Peter Spiro wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed suggesting that the Olympic nationality requirements be banished altogether.

And what about  those larger “First World” nations that recruit from smaller “Third World” countries to increase their chances for a medal?  After playing pro-basketball in Spain, Congo-born Serge Ibaka earned Spanish citizenship and landed on the Spanish Olympic basketball team.

“The Gulf states have acquired African distance runners with promises of stipends for life,” Spiro said.  “In preparation for the 2000 games, Qatar pretty much bought the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team.”

Overall, the rules are made to be overcome and can be for the convenience and competitiveness of the athlete and the country sponsoring of an “athlete.”

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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site while authoring her own influential blog which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

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