I did not get much done during the month of June because I was too busy watching the soccer tournament Euro 2008, which brought together the top sixteen national teams in Europe. Competitions of this type are a place where national stereotypes sometimes have merit, and you don't feel bad about using them — the serious Germans, the stylish Italians, and my dour Swedes. But if you check the team rosters, perhaps such stereotypes have less credibility than they once did. Sweden's best player has that well-known Nordic name Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Brazil, a huge exporter of soccer talent, had five citizens with some kind of dual citizenship playing for Portugal, Poland, Spain, and Turkey. My favorite Euro Brazilian was Mehmet Aurelio, a midfielder for Turkey. Mehmet was born Marco Aurélio in Rio de Janeiro, before taking Turkish citizenship and changing his first name from Marco to Mehmet in 2006.
This kind of country-swapping will also be extensive in the upcoming Olympics. But, in the case of one American who will be playing basketball for Russia, it is creating a big controversy.
For a number of years, the United States has made it easy for great athletes from other countries to become members of our Olympic team. This year, we will have several track stars from Africa, an equestrian from Australia, a triathlete from New Zealand, ping-pong players from China, and a kayaker from Poland. Some have previously won Olympic medals for the countries of their birth. In spite of the current national confusion about other immigrants to the United States, we love this kind of visitor. We welcome these migrant laborers with open arms, and accelerate the immigration process for them. If they win goal medals and help us beat the Chinese in the overall medal count, we will nearly deify them.
What if an American wanted to go the other way and play for another country? We Americans believe in fairness, don't we? Not so in the case of basketball player Becky Hammon. Her move has fueled controversy in which she has been labeled a traitor for choosing to directly compete against the United States. Hammon, a South Dakota native and longtime star in the WNBA, the woman's professional league, wanted to be on the American Olympic team. However, she was told that there was no spot for her. So, what did she do? Hammon, who plays in the Russian league in the WNBA's off season, took Russian dual citizenship and is going to play on the Russian Olympic team. Hammon isn't the only American basketball player who carries a passport from another country. It's standard operating procedure for WNBA players who play a second season in Europe to take passports from their host country since players with European passports don't count against the limits for "non-Europeans" on their pro teams.
Hammon's move seems to come from two places. First, she wants to play in the Olympics and the US coach was not going to pick her despite her all-star performance in the WNBA. Second, playing for Russia is sure to increase her marketing opportunities there and she will make a bunch of money off of this. The reaction from the American Olympic coach, Ann Donovan, who refused to put Hammon on the team, was fast and furious. "If you play in this country, live in this country and you grow up in the heartland — and you put on a Russian uniform — you are not a patriotic person." Her implication was that coming from another country to play for the US is good, but that leaving the US to play for another country is traitorous. Once again, American exceptionalism rears its ugly head.
If the rules said you must play for the country in which you were born and that you cannot financially benefit from playing, that is fine. But if the US is going to accept foreign-born folks and work to naturalize them solely for the purpose of playing for our country — encouraging them along the way to financially capitalize on their success — why can't Americans do the same in other countries? Mark Cuban, the ever-quotable owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, was asked about the Olympics by Sports Illustrated. "What I don't like is that we lie to ourselves and pretend it's about patriotism," he said. "It's not. It's about money."
I don't really care which way we go. All I ask is that we not be hypocrites about it. Slowly but surely, as the American century sees the setting sun, we will begin to realize that we cannot have it both ways. Just because we act immorally in world political affairs does not mean that we need to act in the same way in sports affairs. "Olympic sports should be about unity, friendships, and bringing the best athletes on the planet together," Hammon said. "Not about gloating over dominating other countries."
If only it were so.
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