Not All Olympians Represent Their Home Country, But That Might Not Matter

“If the medals are being won by the best athletes in the world, does it really matter that they’re representing a country other than the country of their birth?”

By Alex DailyAugust 4, 2016 10:13 am|

In the 2012 Olympics, Leo Manzano won a silver medal in the 1500 meter race. It was the first time a member of Team USA medaled in the race since 1968.

“One of the best things about medaling at the Olympics is being able to represent the United States and also representing my heritage as well,” Manzano says.

What he means is this: although he was representing Team USA, in celebrating his victory, he carried a Mexican flag alongside an American one.

“I grew up in the United States, but I still hold my family from Mexico very dear to my heart,” he says.

Some Americans were upset by this, but others were fine with his display of both flags. Most of us have gotten used the idea of dual nationality, especially along the Texas-Mexico border, where athletes who were born in or live in Texas often compete under the red, white and green flag instead of the red, white and blue one.

David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, says countries haven’t always embraced this global mindset.

“You can go back to 1908 when the Olympics were in London and a lot of British fans were very upset at those ex-colonists from the United States were doing well in some of these events, he says.” Wallechinsky says.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union, Wallechinsky says countries began focusing on competing to the best of their abilities – rather than specifically beating other countries. But he says he’s beginning to see a return the nationalistic mindset.

“When you get host countries that are dictatorships, like China in 2008 or Russia in 2014 for the Winter Olympics,” he says, “the leaders want to win as many medals as possible – not to show the rest of the world, but to show their own people.

Sometimes, that involves poaching players who don’t have any connection to the country.

“Of the 13 gold medals Russia won at the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics, nine of them were won by athletes who were not born in Russia,” Wallechinsky says.

The Olympic National Committee has allowed competitors with connections to two or more countries to represent the country of their choice since the 1920s.

“In the early, early days of the Olympics, the great American shot-putters and discus throwers were all born in Ireland,” Wallechinsky says. “They had left Ireland, not so they could compete in the Olympics, so that they could get a job in a bad economy.”

But as time went on, Wallechinsky says the reasons for switching country affiliation began to change.

“Nowadays athletes are more likely to change nationality for one of two reasons,” he says. One is financial and training support, and the other is because their home nation is so rich in an event that they can’t make the team in their home nation.”

This was the case for Christian Schurr. He was born in D.C. to a Mexican mother and American father and has lived in Austin since 1992. But during the London Olympics, his allegiance shifted to south of the border.

“I’ve always wanted to make the Olympics and I knew competing for U.S.A. was going to be tougher to make it,” Schurr says. “So I decided making the switch was definitely going to give me a better chance.”

He competed for Team Mexico instead of America. But, during the last four years, the nationalism he felt towards the country he represented at the Olympics has all but vanished.

“Competing definitely brought out the Mexican pride for sure,” Schurr says. “Obviously now that I’m not swimming anymore and competing, I feel like I guess I’ve kind of lost that connection to Mexico.”

Schurr says that it didn’t matter what team he was on when he was competing, it was more about the joy of being at the Olympics.

“To be honest, if I could have done it for the U.S., I definitely would have instead, but there’s nothing taken away from representing Mexico,” he says. “The joy of being at the Olympics – nothing can compete with that.”

So are the Olympics actually the ultimate display of nationalism? Historian David Wallechinsky doesn’t think so.

“The Olympics is about bringing together athletes of the world to compete against each other as individuals,” he says. “If the medals are being won by the best athletes in the world, does it really matter that they’re representing a country other than the country of their birth?”

It’s something to think about when you’re watching the games – and cheering on the athletes competing for your country.