This past month, the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) and the 2022 Winter Olympics have dominated the world of sports media. Not only are both of these events at the height of international sporting competition, but they have also managed to pick up mainstream news coverage on the topic of nation switching.
Athletes have come under fire for deciding to forgo their birth nations in favor of another. In a globalized world, athletes are increasingly choosing their nationality based on economic and sporting opportunity rather than national ties.
The idea of nation switching is an idea as old as international—or rather interstate—competition itself. Pausanias, an ancient Greek traveler, relays the story of Sotades, a runner for the city-state of Crete whom the city-state of Ephesus bribed to run on their behalf. Nation switching in international sports has evolved dramatically since the ancient Olympic Games.
Eileen Gu, an American-born athlete who decided to compete for her mother’s home country of China, dominated American Olympics coverage even before her gold medal win. Nathan Chen, an American figure skater with Chinese heritage, received similar outrage from Chinese media sources painting him as a traitor. The politicization of these athletes may be exacerbated by rising US-China tensions, but a more plausible explanation is what sociologist Joost Jansen describes as a “marketisation of citizenship.” He contends that there is a market for citizenship in international sports with a talent-bidding system between countries.
While many factors contribute to athletes’ decisions when nation switching, the opportunity to access more ad revenue and sponsorships certainly plays a large role. TV show host Bill Maher criticized Eileen Gu as well as LeBron James for appearing to not address China’s human rights violations in favor of access to Chinese markets. Countries also use athletes’ desire for commercial opportunities to their own advantage. The United Kingdom, for example, has been criticized for bringing in foreign-born talent to strengthen their Olympic squad (dubbed “plastic Brits” by the news media). Oil-rich countries like Qatar have also strengthened their soccer teams using a variety of expatriates, many of whom hail from African nations. Globalization and the consequent weakening of national identity allows for these countries to bring in athletes that want to compete for better economic or competitive outcomes. More famous and talented athletes not only generate more revenue, but they also improve the the team’s chances in the competition. A second explanation for the increasing prevalence of nation switching is a more talented pool of athletes overall, which leads less talented athletes to search for sporting opportunity abroad.
The world of international soccer gives a view into this phenomenon of opportunity-seeking by athletes. In soccer, it is very common for less talented players who cannot make internationally renowned teams to play in countries other than their birth country (Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang, Kalidou Koulibaly, Serge Aurier, Riyad Mahrez). These players may or may not identify with their chosen country, but they would prefer to play for another country than sit on the bench for their home country. The other side of this phenomenon is when exceptionally talented players choose to play for an adopted country (Alphonso Davies, Patrice Evra, Patrick Vieira, Christian Benteke, Raheem Sterling). These players’ home countries do not field competitive teams on the international level, so they search for opportunities on powerhouse teams such as England, Belgium, and France.
Whether for increased competition or for economic opportunity, the rise in globalization over the past half century has allowed for nation switching to occur. World Athletics, formally known as the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAFF), decided in 2017 to try to stop the practice altogether, banning nation switching by citing rule violations. They repealed this decision just one year later, showing a shift in the discourse around nation switching. In this vein, FIFA in 2020 established new rules to assist players with switching nationalities. These new rules allowed players to change national teams if they had fallen out of favor with their previous team and had not exceeded a certain limit on game time. This rule change demonstrates FIFA’s commitment to looser nationhood definitions and more competitive national teams, as well as their commitment to player agency.
A genuine critique of athletes using international sporting competitions to obtain citizenship is that they receive preferential treatment. Whether through the actual acquisition of a passport or the ability to freely live globally, critics have condemned the access that athletes have to favors from the state. For example, Eileen Gu received considerable pushback after posting on Instagram, as many people in China cannot access this site without a VPN. Concerns around Gu’s citizenship status also loom: Under China’s citizenship laws, she should have been forced to forgo her American citizenship by competing on the Olympic team. However, this technicality has not been applied, and she has been able to move between the United States and China with relative ease, showing that she receives preferential treatment because of her status as an athlete.
The ability for athletes to switch between nationalities with such ease reflects a wider shift in conceptions of nationality. In many ways, international sports has become less about representation and more about opportunity. Although these athletes do participate in sports markets, claims of marketization of citizenship are perhaps too strong given the relatively low proportion of athletes who opt to switch nationality. Jansen shows that the media generally portray nation switching objectively, but when they find a particularly interesting story—such as Eileen Gu—the reporting changes to a politicized and controversial style.
The prevalence of athletes choosing nationality based on sporting opportunity will continue to rise, and the quality of international competitions should benefit from these choices. As athletes consider the consequences of a switch in nationality, the international sports market will continue to provide ample opportunities for those athletes who choose to sever their national ties. In addition, as global migration continues to increase, so too will the number of people with dual or multiple nationalities. With borders and national identities weakening, it only seems right that athletes should be able to seek out opportunities to perform their talent on an international stage.