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.
"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.
Sprinter Merlene Ottey, one of the great Olympians in history, recently switched countries. Ottey ran for her native Jamaica in six Olympics, from 1980 through 2000, and won eight medals, three silvers and five bronzes, including a silver in the 4-by-100-meter relay in 2000. Now 44 but still competitive, she'll run for Slovenia, where her coach is based and where she has lived since 1998.
"Slovenia is the right place for me," Ottey told the British newspaper the Independent. "There was a big fuss in 2000 because people said I was too old. I thought, fine, if I'm too old, I'll find another country where I'm appreciated."
Some Olympians switch countries for political reasons. Sofia Sakorafa, who threw the javelin for Greece in the 1980 Olympics, is coming out of retirement this year to make a political statement. Now a city councilor in the Greek town of Maroussi, Sakorafa will throw the javelin on the Palestinian team.
"My goal is to compete for the Palestinians and for peace," she told reporters this summer. "That's all. And that's what I want to convey to the world, not the competitive aspect. . . . I'm sure everyone realizes a 47-year old woman who hasn't competed for 17 years doesn't have any ambitions of setting records or winning medals."
Unlike Sakorafa, most Olympian country-jumpers simply want to play. Anna Kozlova, a synchronized swimmer who competed on the post-Soviet Unified Team in Barcelona in 1992, moved to the United States in 1993 because she was fascinated by the country she saw portrayed in American movies. Forced to sit out the 1996 Olympics because of the three-year rule, she swam for the U.S. team in 2000 and is back again this year.
"Swimming for a new country was a little strange at first," she says, "but with Russia, so many people left for different countries and different teams that it was pretty normal."
A Migratory Tradition
"This is not a new thing," says Kevin Wamsley, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies in Ontario. "The issue of athlete migration has been with us for quite some time."
Ever since the modern Olympics began in 1896, Wamsley says, athletes have competed for countries other than their own. In 1904, for instance, the games were held in St. Louis -- a long, grueling trip from Europe in those days -- so few Europeans competed. Their places were sometimes filled by Americans with ethnic connections to those countries.
"The early lack of organization," Wamsley says, "permitted a rather loose category of nationalism."
Although the modern Olympics were organized on the principle that athletes compete for their country, Wamsley says, nationality was not as important in the early decades as it became during the Cold War, when the games became an athletic battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies.
"The Cold War was a period of heightened nationalism," Wamsley says. "Now, in a period of globalization, you see a greater international traffic in athletes, both Olympic and professional."
Over the past hundred years, at least a dozen athletes have represented two different countries in different Olympic Games, according to records supplied by the International Olympic Committee. Scores of other athletic immigrants have competed representing a nation other than the one in which they were born. Of the 531 members of this year's U.S. Olympic team, for example, 30 were born in foreign countries -- 20 nations in all.
Country-switching is now so common that it is usually noticed only when one of the switchers achieves infamy by a particularly flamboyant screw-up.
In 1984, for example, South African runner Zola Budd finagled her way around the apartheid-era boycott of her native land by competing for Britain, birthplace of her grandfather. Running barefoot in the 3,000-meter race, Budd collided with America's golden girl Mary Decker, who fell to the ground. Neither woman won a medal. In 1992, when the boycott ended, Budd ran for South Africa in Barcelona, but again failed to win a medal.
In 1988, Ben Johnson, a native Jamaican competing for Canada, won the gold medal in the 100-meter dash, setting a world record. A few days later, Johnson's medal was taken away when he tested positive for steroids.
"When he won the gold, he was Canadian. When he tested positive, he was a foreigner," Wamsley says, laughing at the memory. "All of a sudden, he was no longer ours. There is no unconditional love for migrating athletes."
Going for the Green
Today, the most controversial aspect of country-jumping is the migration of African athletes to affluent nations on other continents.
In recent years, more than a dozen world-class African runners have jumped to other countries. Nigerian hurdler Gloria Alozie, who won a silver medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney competing for her native land, will be running for Spain this year. Francis Obikwelu, another Nigerian who won silver in Sydney, will run for Portugal. Both runners emigrated in search of better training facilities and more money.
"By taking up Spanish citizenship, I took my future into consideration," Alozie told a Nigerian newspaper. "I train in Spain -- my club, my coach, everything that I have is in Spain."
Kenya, for decades a dominant power in distance running, has suffered the most from country-jumping. In the 1990s, two Kenyan runners, Wilson Kipketer and Anderson Kiplagat, jumped to Denmark, while another, Wilson Kirwa, became a Finn. Those defections were widely denounced in Kenya, and the controversy heated up last year when at least eight Kenyan athletes jumped to the affluent Perisan Gulf nations of Qatar and Bahrain.
Last summer, Kenyan Stephen Cherono, the 2003 world-champion steeplechase runner who became a citizen of Qatar, changed his name to Saif Saeed Shaheen. He was joined by Kenya 5,000-meter runner Albert Chepkurui, who became a Qatari named Abdullah Ahmad Hassan. Meanwhile, three other Kenyan runners jumped to Bahrain -- Abel Cheruiyot, Leonard Mucheru and Gregory Konchellah, who is the son of legendary Kenyan runner Billy Konchellah.
Qatar and Bahrain lured the athletes with promises of generous benefits and lifetime pensions. But the Gulf nations' attempt to import Olympic glory ran into a problem: the rule that forbids athletes from competing for one country within three years of representing another. Qatar and Bahrain tried to get Kenya's Olympic Committee to waive the rule -- Qatar offered to build a track stadium in Kenya -- but the proud and angry Kenyans refused to go along.
"If they want to go to the Olympics in 2004, they will have to run for Kenya," Tom O'Omuombo, head of the Kenyan Olympic Committee, announced last fall. "If we compromise, it encourages misuse of the rule and exodus."
Consequently, none of Qatar's ex-Kenyans will be eligible to run in Athens, and Konchellah, who was not affected by the three-year rule, is the only ex-Kenyan eligible to compete for Bahrain this year.
The Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper, supported the decision to bar the defectors, denouncing them as "dinar-chasing" turncoats.
"Kenya's honor is at stake," the newspaper proclaimed. "After huge losses on the track and in personnel this year, we may be mollified by the fact that even though we will not have the services of some of our biggest names, the countries they have gone to will not either."
The Spirit of the Games
As the Kenyan brouhaha proves, Olympic country-jumping remains bitterly controversial. Boiled down, the basic argument is this: Should the Olympics be a competition between nations or between individuals free to move from nation to nation?
One fact is not in dispute: Unfettered country-jumping would improve the quality of Olympic competition. That's because some countries produce more world-class athletes than they can enter into an Olympic event. For instance, China produces most of the world's best table tennis players but it can only enter a few in the Olympics. Consequently, several excellent Chinese players won't make it to Athens while lesser players from, say, the United States, will.
Should a Chinese player be free to move to the United States and take the job of a less talented American? Should a rich country like the United States or Qatar be able to buy Olympic gold the way the New York Yankees buy pennants?
Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, has expressed his dismay about the practice. "From a moral point of view, we should avoid this transfer market in athletes," he said earlier this year. "What we don't like is athletes being lured by large incentives by other countries and giving them a passport when they arrive at the airport."
C. Peter Goplerud, a legal scholar and co-author of "Sports Law: Cases and Materials," shares Rogge's concerns about country-jumping. "It's not good for the Olympics, assuming that we believe in the purity of the Olympics as an arena for competition between the nations of the world."
But Roger G. Noll, a Stanford University economics professor who studies the business of sport, disagrees: "To argue that flag-jumping is a bad idea, you must be willing to argue that it is a good thing to have most places at the Olympics decided by national boundaries and citizenship, not merit."
Over at Fast Eddie's sports bar on K Street NW, Olympic fans came out strongly against country-jumping.
"I think it takes away from the spirit of the Olympics," said bartender Steve Wilson, 30, of Washington. "You're supposed to be competing for your country."
"I don't think it's right," said Goeff Thomas, 23, a consultant and soccer fan from Washington. "I think people with no true claim to citizenship should not be allowed to compete on the Olympic stage."
While fans and experts debate the issue abstractly, the athletes displaced by country-jumpers sound like any other worker angry at losing his job to an immigrant.
"It's simply not fair," said Giorgos Lebesis, one of the Greek baseball players who lost his Olympic job to an American. "We've been working very hard for three straight years for this goal, and for what?"
"I am gobsmacked," said Iwan Thomas, the British runner who lost his Olympic spot when American Malachi Davis showed up with a brand-new British passport. "I have been robbed of my dream."
On and on it goes. The debate over country-jumping will no doubt last long after the 2004 Athens Games are over.
Meanwhile, one thing is certain: For this year at least, to assume that the Greek Olympic baseball team is composed of Greeks from Greece makes no more sense than assuming that the New York Yankees are composed of yankees from New York.