Define, please, the term Olympic Games. Are they a showcase for nationalism, exemplified by the victors' triumvirate of medal, flag and anthem? Or a peace festival, bringing nations together like no other force on earth? For more than a century the Olympic beast somehow has managed to be both. But now, with the Games back in the country where they began, the strain of embodying two contradictory ideas is showing as never before. ¬∂ You saw it last week on the singlet of Jamaican sprinting legend Merlene Ottey, who after competing in six Olympics for her native land, showed up for the Athens Games with sSovenia written across her heart. You saw it in Greece's softball, baseball and women's soccer teams, composed mostly of Americans whose connection to Greek life consists of a Greek great-grandparent and the occasional frat party. You heard it in the Serbian accent of the two U.S. table tennis players, the Kiswahili accent of the runner from Bahrain, the Bulgarian accent of the Australian canoeist. Most of all, you heard it in the throat of Cuban-born triple jumper Yamilé Aldama, where, she says, words get caught every time she is asked what country she represents. "Like now," she said last week, pausing for effect, then gasping from the effort. "Um, I'm from Sudan. But at the end of the day I feel Cuban."
She isn't the only one still adjusting. Though the phenomenon of flag jumping is hardly new, an act once freighted with political baggage or driven by the search for a better life has become astonishingly casual. With rich countries such as Qatar and Bahrain blatantly buying sports talent, with poor countries such as Haiti offering quick citizenship in exchange for instant Olympic credibility, with even the powerful U.S. team boasting a former Chinese Olympic silver medalist and 29 other foreign-born athletes, there's no event at these Olympics untouched by the blurring of the border between them and us.
The trend makes the International Olympic Committee nervous, not least because IOC rules do little to prevent it. Athletes who change countries cannot compete in an Olympics until three years after they last represented their former nations. But this period can be reduced or even canceled by the IOC with the agreement of the concerned national Olympic committees and international sports federations. "From a moral point of view we should avoid this transfer market in athletes," IOC president Jacques Rogge has said. More to the point, flag jumping undermines the gut-level nationalist appeal that made the Olympics a 20th-century sports juggernaut.
"The question is, What is this going to do to the Games?" asks Kevin Wamsley, director of the International Center for Olympic Studies in London, Ont. "If they lose nationalism, maybe they lose their spectator appeal. The IOC will have to get a handle on it to protect its own interests."
On Monday night Aldama became the issue's new face, posting Sudan's best-ever performance when she took fifth in the triple jump final. She competed under the Sudanese flag and even dyed her eyebrows Sudanese red and green, but no one in that war-torn land or anywhere else considers Aldama, 32, a true representative of the African country. It took just two days for her to receive her Sudanese passport, last January, and the time she has spent in her adopted land adds up to about two weeks. With her family in Cuba, her son in England and her London home about to be seized by the British government because of her husband's conviction for drug trafficking, who could truly say where Aldama was from?
"The last three years have been crazy for me," she said last week. "Problems, struggling in London, language, trying to learn how to get around--crazy. So for me to be in Athens is amazing. It's a great feeling."
Until 2001 Aldama was just another cog in the Cuban sports machine, one of the world's few remaining vehicles of undiluted nationalism. She finished fourth in Sydney and expected to compete for Cuba in Athens. But then she met a British man named Andrew Dodds, fell in love and got married. She retired from the Cuban team and gave birth to their son, Amil, in September '01. Two months later mother and son joined Dodds in London, where Aldama sought out coach Frank Attoh and began training again with the idea of competing for Great Britain. She and Dodds lived comfortably; he explained his income with vague talk about working as an independent TV producer. In the spring of '02, however, police burst into their home and arrested Dodds for possession of 100 kilos of heroin. He was charged with participating in a Turkey-based heroin smuggling ring, and in May '03 he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
"It's very difficult to recall these things," Aldama said of the day the police came. "It was really, really hard for me, with a seven-month-old son. But I'm good. When it happens, you think, Why me? But there are more difficult times for [other] people. You see Sudan--all this killing, and people without food--and you see my thing is not so bad."
The judge in Dodds's case ordered that all of his property be confiscated. Although exonerated of any involvement in heroin trafficking, Aldama found herself alone, stateless, jobless and seemingly hopeless. "He's a bad boy," Attoh says of Dodds. "I'd hang him." But Aldama still talked to her husband almost daily from Athens. When home in London she takes their son to visit him in prison. "I still love him," she said. She puts her hand on her chest. "It's here."
Laughing, she adds, "I know I want to kill him. It's easy to say, 'Go away,' but when I had problems, he never said, 'Go away.' I don't know if in the future we will be together, but I'm happy the way I am now."
Much of her joy stems from the fact that she's competing. Despite the case of the Kenyan runners lured to Qatar and Bahrain with lifetime stipends--even though most were ineligible to compete in Athens--more athletes jump flags these days because they want to take part in the Games. The 44-year-old Ottey, for one, became a Slovenian citizen in 2002 because Jamaican teammates and officials were pressing her to retire.
For Aldama the stakes were higher: Jumping, with its prize money and, in her case, an Adidas sponsorship, offered a way for her to care for her son. When Great Britain refused to speed up its citizenship process to allow her to compete in these Games, she began nation-shopping. The Czech Republic and Italy reportedly were interested, but the fastest track was offered by Sudan, which is paying Aldama nothing.
As for those in Sudan who say she isn't Sudanese: "That is O.K.," said the country's chef de mission in Athens, Kamal Ali Kheiralla. "All the people are very interested in seeing the flag go up in the Olympic Games. After, we will use her to lift up other ladies in Sudan to practice this event."
At first blush, of course, the whole setup seems contrary to the Olympic ideal, whatever that is. But for Sudan, embroiled in a bloody civil war, finding Olympic athletes is not a priority. The country will take anyone. "If a man is useful to us in any sort of activity--medicine, sports, engineering--he can help us a lot," Kheiralla said.
Besides, the Olympics are what the world decides they are. As Wamsley points out, the founder of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, saw them as preparation for military service before he embraced them as a vehicle for peace. "The Olympic ideal is an empty vessel filled up by the ideas of the day," Wamsley says. "It's all up for grabs."
Now more than ever. In an era of globalization, maybe it's only right that athletes are ignoring national distinctions. "Sport is becoming countryless," said Attoh, a Ghana-born Brit. "How do you stop someone from marrying and becoming a Brit or a Canadian or an American?"
You don't. You can't. Aldama is the case in point, and she's not finished yet. She's a triple jumper, after all, and she may well be competing under her third flag at the 2008 Games in Beijing. Come November, Aldama becomes eligible for British citizenship. She plans to apply.