At Sochi 2014, athletes’ nationality is pliable

When South Korean short-track speedskater and three-time Olympic gold medalist Ahn Hyun-soo had a falling out with the officials running his team four years ago, he did what high-profile, long-tenured athletes in other professional sports have been doing for decades: He picked a new team, Russia.

Now, newly self-christened as Viktor Ahn, he has returned to the top of his sport at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, seizing control of the men’s 1,000 meters late in the race Saturday and taking the gold medal, Russia’s first ever in short-track. When the race was over, Ahn, 28, thrust his fist in the air, grabbed a Russian flag and skated around the Iceberg Skating Palace to chants of “Vik-tor! Vik-tor!” from the crowd.

“Of course, I’m happy,” Ahn said later. “It’s my first Olympics in my home country.”

Even under the passport-swapping norms of the Olympic movement, in which athletes have been competing for countries other than their original ones for decades, Ahn’s gambit is an extreme case, coming closer to something approximating international free agency.

The Olympics have a long tradition of athletes using familial ties or liberal naturalization policies to change their citizenship, often for the purpose of earning a chance to compete when they weren’t good enough to make their own country’s team. In other cases, richer nations have recruited athletes from poorer ones — such as Bahrain importing Kenyan distance runners — to compete for them for purposes of national prestige.

But Ahn, who had no ties to Russia before his switch, may be the first athlete, or at least the highest-profile one, to detach himself from his own country, announce his availability and solicit offers until he found one that best suited him.

Ahn became one of the most celebrated athletes in South Korea after winning three golds and a bronze at the 2006 Turin Games. But he suffered a major knee injury in 2008, and while he recovered in time to begin competing again in 2010, South Korea left him off its 2010 Vancouver Olympic team. Ahn was so upset he decided to renounce his citizenship and with the help of his father began investigating potential landing spots and listening to sales pitches of different countries.

Among them was the United States, which, with its relatively small budget for speedskating and relatively rigorous citizenship requirements, couldn’t compete with Russia’s offer. No one will say how much financial enticement Russia ultimately provided, or to what extent that played into Ahn’s choice, but it was part of the conversation.

“I invited Ahn and his father to visit Russia,” Russian speedskating head Alexei Kravstov told Reuters last year. “When they came it didn’t take long for us to come to an agreement.”

With US speed skaters having miserable Olympics, team decides to dump high-tech suit at Sochi. Under Armour's Kevin Haley told The Associated Press the Americans had received permission to go back to their suits used in the World Cup circuit. (Associated Press)

Ahn, who wears his hair dyed a neon orangeish-red, has said he took the name Viktor both to connote victory and to honor Viktor Tsoi, a Soviet rock pioneer who was also of Korean descent. Otherwise, he has said little about his move from his homeland to his adopted one, other than generalities.

“Russia offered me the best conditions from all possible options,” he said after his gold medal-winning race Saturday. “I came here as I needed a good atmosphere to train in calmly, and I found it here.”

Passport swappers more prevalent

They are referred to as “passport Olympians” or “Olympic carpetbaggers,” and it is a tradition that dates back at least as far back as the 1920s, when Britain fielded ice hockey teams made up largely of Canadians. In 1936, the British won the gold medal with a team on which nine of the 13 players grew up in Canada.

But in Sochi 2014, the passport-swappers are by some accounts more prevalent than ever.

The International Olympic Committee charter states only that athletes must be citizens of the country they represent; individual sports federations are able to set their own standards for citizenship changes beyond that. Some sports bar athletes from changing countries once they have already competed for one. Others are more relaxed, perhaps most notably figure skating, which, for example, has a provision that only one member of a pairs or ice-dancing team be a citizen of the country they are competing for.

There are American figure skaters and ice dancers competing here for Brazil (Isadora Williams, who trains in Ashburn and whose mother is Brazilian) and Lithuania (Isabella Tobias, who is from New York City), among other countries. (The citizenship swapping works in the opposite direction as well, as when Canadian-born ice dancer Tanith Belbin got an expedited path to citizenship in time to compete and win a silver medal for the United States in the 2006 Turin Games.)

There are African and tropical-island nations where snow has never fallen that sent athletes to Sochi to compete in skiing events, many of them spurred to do so by the IOC, which two years ago began encouraging such non-traditional Winter Olympics countries to consider fielding teams — which, in turn, meant finding athletes to represent them.

“They don’t live in Togo,” Kelani Bayor, vice president of the Togo Olympic Committee, said of his country’s two-athlete delegation (skiers originally from France and Italy), “but they are part of the diaspora.”

In sports in which one country is dominant — and thus, spots on that country’s Olympic team are scarce — lesser competitors frequently find another country to play for. In the 2008 Beijing Games, for example, the United States fielded a table tennis team that included four players who were born in China.

Individual wealth, motivation and at least some talent also can help. Gary and Angelica di Silvestri, husband-and-wife cross-country skiers from Staten Island, N.Y., and Italy, respectively, were granted citizenship by Dominica — an island nation in the Lesser Antilles — on the basis of their unspecified “philanthropic activities,” and came to Sochi to compete.

Unfortunately, Gary di Silvestri, a hedge-fund manager, developed bacterial gastroenteritis within days of their arrival in Sochi and failed to finish his race. Angelica crashed during a training run and broke her nose badly enough to require hospitalization, forcing her to withdraw from hers.

Pushback may already have begun

The difference between most of those athletes and Ahn, however, is that they typically are not medal threats, whereas he may be the best short-track speedskater in the world. In that sense, Ahn may be a new type of mercenary the likes of which the Olympics haven’t seen.

It is common for countries to recruit athletes with financial incentives into switching countries, as when Qatar paid eight Bulgarian weightlifters a reported $1 million apiece to compete for it in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

But Ahn may be the first case of an athlete being the impetus for such a bold, calculated transaction.

Perhaps someday Ahn will be seen as the Curt Flood of the Olympics, the man whose actions spurred an era of free agency. Then again, the Olympics may not be ready for that. The pushback against Ahn’s move has already begun. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye has ordered the country’s sports ministry to answer for why Ahn felt ostracized to the point that he decided to leave.

“We must ask ourselves if his problem was not due to the unreasonableness on our sports community,” she said last week.

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Are the Winter Olympics for the rich?

At the same time, there is an even more bold-faced, more highly evolved mercenary movement in evidence at the Sochi Games. Fuahea Semi, a 26-year-old luger from Tonga, was recruited last year by German interests who insisted as part of the financial deal that he change his name.

And thus did the former Semi compete in the Sochi Olympics luge competition, still representing Tonga and finishing 32nd in men’s singles, as Bruno Banani — the name of a German underwear company.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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