After a poor showing at the Vancouver Games two years ago, the Russian Olympic team will be under immense pressure to perform better and boost the medal count in front of the home crowd in Sochi. Imagine the dancers and pairs skaters twirling along the ice, think of Moscow's Alex Ovechkin powering down the wing as Seoul, South Korea-born Ahn Hyun-Soo navigates the pylons.
Ahn's story is not uncommon in the world of double-twisting passports. Granted he will be 28 in 2014 and his injury-riddled legs haven't propelled him to the top of his sport in almost five years, but with three Olympic gold medals and 20 world titles on his resume, Ahn is one of the greatest short-track speedskaters in history.
Having recently earned Russian citizenship, Ahn will also be eligible to represent Russia as a sort of Olympic free agent, kind of like Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder offering himself up to the flag that can offer the best deal. In some cases, best means most lucrative, plain and simple. In other cases, athletes may simply find their prospects of qualifying for the Games or their roles on certain teams more to their liking if they switch allegiances. In Ahn's case, his injuries before the 2010 Olympics made it harder for him to qualify for a South Korean team loaded with talent and healthy bodies. After that season, he felt his federation cast him aside, even though he was still capable of keeping up with the world's elite. The move to the less cluttered ranks of the Russian team was therefore a mutually beneficial arrangement.
And Ahn isn't alone among the ranks of faux-Russians. When U.S. basketball player Becky Hammon learned that she wouldn't receive a tryout for her national team, Hammon, who played for the Russian team CSKA, received dual citizenship and won an Olympic bronze in 2008 while playing for Russia. Several people, including U.S. national team coach Anne Donovan called Hammon's patriotism into question.
Recently, a number of Ethiopian distance runners, including Kenenisa Bekele, a three-time Olympic champion, threatened to change county affiliations if his national committee did not revoke a ban on 35 of the country's distance runners who refused to participate in a group training session. At issue was the national team's new track, a Mondo surface better suited to sprinters, but worrisome to injury-prone distance runners. Bekele reportedly spent $1 million of his own money to construct a new, softer track outside of Addis Ababa that was easier to use for distance athletes. The federation relented after protests from the athletes. But could Bekele really have changed allegiances in time for the London Games? How exactly does the process work? How has it worked in the past? And who is still doing this today, especially with an Olympics just half a year away?
No, he couldn't, at least not in time for London. The IOC requires a waiting period of up to three years for all athletes who change allegiances from one national Olympic committee to another. If the athlete's original country and the relevant international sports governing body agree, the athlete's wait can be shortened to one year. This leaves abundant room for abuse or at least for inconsistent applications of eligibility rules that have varied over the years.
The British ice hockey team won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Garmisch with a team made up entirely of players with ties to Canada. Eleven of the 13 members of the team had grown up playing hockey there. Several were dual citizens.
Shortly before the 2006 Olympics, Canadian-born ice dancer Tanith Belbin received an accelerated review and subsequent approval for U.S. citizenship from President Bush in time to win an Olympic silver medal with partner Ben Agosto at the Games in Salt Lake City.
In Beijing, the U.S. contingent sported an equestrian from Australia, table tennis players from China, a kayaker from Poland and a triathlete from New Zealand.
Of course some athletes had geographic branches on several trees. Consider the case of hurdler Mark McKoy, who won the 110-meter hurdles at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona while running for Canada. McKoy was born in Guyana, grew up in England, attended Clemson University in the U.S., married an East German distance runner and obtained Austrian citizenship in 1994.
Tony Gunawan may be 36, but now that the former world champion in doubles badminton received his U.S. citizenship in September, Gunawan, an Indonesian native, and his longtime doubles partner Howard Bach, who came to the United States from Vietnam at age two, can finally try to make the U.S. Olympic team. They won the world doubles title in Anaheim in 2005, when Gunawan had resident status.
Sometimes the conversions are openly financial. Eight Bulgarian weightlifters received $1 million apiece to represent Qatar at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
A recent survey by Sports Life found that as many 50 British athletes on this summer's Olympic team could come from overseas. Wrestlers Jana Stadnik and Olga Butkevych will finish their fifth and final year of UK residency, enabling them to compete for GB instead of their native Ukraine. With sponsors spending more money than usual on an Olympic team that is about to participate at home, there is more to be gained for athletes who can bring home medals for Britain, even if Britain isn't really home.
As the flags fly later this summer, here's hoping the athletes can keep track of which ones belong to them.