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For Olympians in Training, Flexibility Is Everything. Especially When It Comes to Citizenship.

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page D01

Looking at his Greek Olympic baseball team, coach Dimitris Goussios wondered: Where are the Greeks?

Of the 24 ballplayers on the Greek team, only two are actually Greek. The other 22 are Americans and Canadians who had a Greek parent or maybe a Greek grandparent or great-grandparent. Consequently, the Greek Olympic baseball team is Greek in name only and Goussios is not happy about it.

Nigerian Francis Obikwelu, front, runs for Portugal. (AP)

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"I feel very bitter," he told reporters July 22. "Of course, the American-born players are of higher quality and we warmly welcome them as part of Greece . . . but this is unfair."

Angry, Goussios threatened to quit in protest. "I'll fight this up until the last minute," he said.

Goussios will likely lose that fight. He is bucking a controversial but powerful trend in the modern Olympics -- the migration of athletes from country to country. Like immigrant workers and multinational corporations, athletes move across national borders in search of better opportunities, a better political climate and, of course, more money. In this age of globalization, some countries import athletes, some countries export athletes and some countries, like the United States, do both.

As a result, fans can no longer tell what country a player comes from by simply looking at his or her uniform. It's far more complicated than that.

Consider the case of Alistair Cragg. The 5,000-meter runner was born in South Africa. He ran track at the University of Arkansas. So which nation will he represent at the Olympics in Athens beginning Aug. 13? South Africa? No. The United States? No. Cragg will be running for . . . Ireland.

Or consider boxer Andre Berto. Born in Florida, Berto hoped to fight for the United States in the 2004 Olympics, but he was disqualified from the U.S. team for fouling an opponent in a key bout. Now he's fighting for Haiti.

Then there's Malachi Davis. Born in Sacramento, he ran the 400 meters for UCLA. In Athens, he'll be representing Britain, a nation he had never set foot in until this summer.

This country-jumping is possible because Olympic rules permit each nation to decide who is eligible for its team. Thus, Ireland could rule that Cragg qualifies for dual citizenship because his grandparents were born in Ireland. Haiti embraced Berto because his parents were Haitian. And Britain issued Davis a passport because his mother was born in London. Needless to say, the sluggish bureaucracy of citizenship is frequently streamlined for Olympians.

Meanwhile, Greece has granted summary dual citizenship to the 22 foreign baseball players of Greek heritage while simultaneously exempting them from Greek military service. Greece also recruited a softball team composed almost entirely of Americans of Greek heritage.

There is, however, one obstacle to this country-jumping: Olympic regulations forbid a player from competing for a new country within three years of representing his old country in international competition. Consequently, Olympians who emigrate from one country to another must sometimes sit idle for several frustrating years.

That layoff would be devastating in some sports but not in table tennis. That's why this year's U.S. qualifiers in the sport include three players who have earned Olympic medals for other countries. In the 1992 Olympics, Gao Jun won a silver medal for her native China. In the 1988 games, Jasna Reed won a bronze medal, and Ilija Luplesku won a silver medal as members of the Yugoslav team. All three later immigrated to the United States, became citizens and will be wielding their paddles for the USA in Athens.

Some Olympians -- like those newly American table tennis players -- switch countries in search of a better life. Some -- like Davis, Berto and the Greek baseball players -- switch because they can't make the Olympic team in their own country but can qualify in another. Others, like Kenyan steeplechase champion Stephen Cherono, simply go where the money is: Cherono moved to the oil-rich country of Qatar, which offered to pay him a salary -- reportedly $1,000 a month -- for the rest of his life.

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