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February 5, 2014

Meet 2014's Olympic carpetbaggers

WASHINGTON — At the Winter Olympics in Sochi this February, a German prince will represent Mexico. A South Korea native will represent Russia. And a Singapore-born, London-raised violinist will ski for Thailand.

Meet 2014's Olympic carpetbaggers -- the latest in a long line of competitors who've sought glory under a foreign flag. Like other imported athletes before them, they've established only tenuous ties to their ostensible motherlands, and exist as awkward reminders that, even as the games embrace the rhetoric of national pride, opportunism knows no borders.

Though the Olympic Charter requires all athletes to be citizens of the country for which they compete, the phenomenon of "passport swapping," as it's often called, is surprisingly common. In 2012, the Telegraph reported that 61 members of Team Great Britain were born overseas and that one of them -- wrestler Olga Butkevych -- had received her U.K. passport only a few months before the games. The United States is particularly prone to the practice, even offering a special visa for aspiring Olympians (deemed "aliens of extraordinary abilities").

 Why engage in carpetbagging? For the athletes, it's a chance at, if not Olympic glory, at least the experience of lifetime. For the countries that take them in, it's shot at a medal that would otherwise be hopeless. It's a win-win -- as long no one thinks too hard about what it means to actually hail from somewhere. Over the years, athletes of all talent levels and resources have devised creative ways of getting to the games. Here are some of our favorite, tried-and-tested carpetbagging strategies from Olympics past and present:

 1. Use your wealth (and daddy's passport) to play for a country where you have no competition.

Tired of chasing the Olympic dream equipped with just subpar athletic ability and lacking the necessary years of training? You can still make it -- but it'll cost you.

Child prodigy turned international violin superstar Vanessa-Mae, who is most famous for her unusual music style -- a techno-acoustic violin crossover -- will be competing for Thailand in Alpine skiing during the upcoming games in Sochi. Born in Singapore, Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson received British citizenship thanks to her stepfather. She was raised in Britain, but owing to her Thai father she still holds a passport that will allow her to race alongside skiing powerhouse nations such as Austria, Germany and the United States. (Don't expect her to thank him for the privilege, though: he famously disowned her in the mid-1990s over issues of her attire, or lack thereof.) No matter, says the new pride of Bangkok. "I wanted to compete for Thailand because there is a part of me which I have never celebrated -- being Thai," she said in an interview.

Of course, in Thailand -- where average temperatures do not fall below 55 degrees Fahrenheit -- it just so happens that she doesn't face much competition either. And Vanessa-Mae, whose fortune in 2006 was estimated at $52 million, wasn't one to be hindered by Thailand's lack of any ski facilities whatsoever: in 2009, she moved to the Swiss resort of Zermatt to train on its snowy slopes.

Vanessa-Mae and another alpine skier, Kanes Sucharitakul, will make up Thailand's second Winter Olympic team ever: the country's only previous competitor had been electrical engineering professor Prawat Nagvajara, who competed in cross-country skiing.

The violinist says she is fully aware of her own athletic shortcomings. "When it comes to music I am a perfectionist, but when it is skiing I have no delusions about a podium or even being in the top 100 in the world," she said in an interview.

Others in this category -- perhaps one of the most common forms of carpetbagging -- include Gary di Silvestri, 46, a native of Staten Island, and his Italian wife Angelica Morrone di Silvestri, 48, who received citizenship in Dominica for their philanthropic work in the country. The couple, who had previously done well for themselves in finance careers, will be competing in Sochi in cross-country skiing, as Dominica's first-ever Winter Olympics team.

2. Sell your talents as an athlete-mercenary.

Some Olympic athletes compete for gold; others compete for cash. Though the practice is generally frowned upon, plenty of would-be Olympians sell their athletic talents to distant nations hungry for a medal.

 Bulgarian weightlifters and Kenyan long-distance runners tend to dominate in this category, as they hail from poor countries that also happen to boast specialized athletic prowess, which can be had -- for a price. In the 2012 London Olympics, Bulgarian weightlifters Boyanka Kostova and Valentin Hristov represented Azerbaijan for the hefty fee of more than $500,000. Bahrain is a top importer of Kenyan long-distance runners, though the practice doesn't always turn out so well for the runners: In 2007, Mushir Salem Jawher, a Kenyan runner who had left for to Bahrain a few years earlier, was ousted from his new home after running a marathon in Israel, a country that Bahrain does not recognize.

Qatar, meanwhile, invests heavily in athletes from both Kenya and Bulgaria. In 2000, Qatar's government bought an entire Bulgarian weightlifting team -- eight athletes in total -- in exchange for citizenship and a little over $1 million. In 2003, it also reportedly bought two Kenyan long-distance runners: Stephen Cherono and Albert Chepkurui, who duly became Qatari Olympians Saif Saeed Shaheen and Ahmad Hassan Abdullah (neither Cherono nor Chepkurui were actually Muslim).

Athletic mercenaries, as it turns out, are hardly a new phenomenon. During the Hellenistic period, athletes competing in the Greek Olympics often sold their talents to the highest-paying nation states. Greek political leaders saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to win political influence with their neighbors, and were willing to pay for that chance. These days, however, the investment doesn't always pay off. The efforts of Qatar and Azerbaijan, for example, have only yielded one bronze medal for each. And while Kenya has won gold in men's steeplechase at every Olympic Games since 1968, Qatar and Bahrain have yet to make it to the top of the podium.

3. Represent a country that is not recognized by Olympic authorities.

First things first: to compete at the games, a would-be Olympian needs a country. That's not so easy, however, when you happen to be from a place that's been embroiled in a decades-long territorial dispute. What's an athlete to do besides take her talents on the road when the nation she holds a passport for hasn't been recognized by the International Olympic Committee?

Majlinda Kelmendi, the 2009 judo junior world champion and 2013 world champion, fought hard with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to compete for tiny Kosovo in the 2012 London games. (Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but has yet to be recognized by all United Nations members, and Serbia has lobbied to keep the country out of federations like the IOC that might bestow upon it international legitimacy.)

"I've worked so hard for this, I've dreamed of representing my country at the Olympics, and I really don't want someone to tell me it's not possible to fight for Kosovo in London," she told the Financial Times. "I don't understand why everything has to be about politics."

 Five other athletes tried to compete for Kosovo in London, but their bids were rejected. Ultimately, only Kelmendi ended up going to London. (Though she was courted by the Azerbaijanis, she ultimately decided to compete for Albania, who may have been disappointed in their ringer: despite her previous showings, Kelmendi failed to even make it to the quarterfinals.)

There are several other unrecognized Olympic committees, including Kurdistan, Catalonia, and, notably, Abkhazia. The latter is a breakaway Georgian republic that neighbors Sochi, and its athletes were only allowed to compete under another nation's flag (most of them opt for Russian citizenship). Abkhaz wrestler Denis Tsargush won a bronze for Russia at the 2012 London Olympics.

4. Use your royal connections.

For a certain breed of Olympians, a quick perusal of the family tree provides a range of options when it comes to choosing flags under which to compete.

With their wide selection of passports and sizable family coffers, European aristocrats can hedge their bets and choose a citizenship of convenience.

Take Germany's Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe, who has emerged as the Sochi Olympics' favorite underdog. The 55-year-old athlete, who will represent Mexico on the slalom course, made a splash when he debuted his race suit on NBC last week: a spandex Mariachi get-up, complete with fake embroidery, a ruffled shirt, a red cummerbund and cravat.

 Hohenlohe has admitted that, with the flashy outfit, he's compensating for what look like slim chances of making it to the podium, joking that he could at least win for being best-dressed. Hohenlohe's hat tip to Mexico's folk music traditions may also be an attempt to win over any countrymen who may still be dubious of his south-of-the-border street cred (despite this being the sixth time he's skied for the country): though his grandmother was half-Mexican and Hohenlohe was born in Mexico City, he grew up far from the country. The descendant of an aristocratic German family which once ruled the principality of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, Hubertus learned to ski in the backyards of his European boarding schools.

"Until I went to Mexico recently to make a documentary, I never realized what a beautiful, amazing, rich past and culture they have and what a proud people they are," he said in a recent interview.

Other royal mercenaries include the German Princess Nathalie of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, niece to Danish Queen Margrethe, who earned Denmark a bronze in dressage in 2008.

5. Or just take up bobsledding.

Passport-swapping isn't the only way to make it as an Olympic carpetbagger. Some athletes just swap sports. Competing in a similar or somewhat less-demanding sport (no harm intended) could, after all, help a down-and-out athlete regain his or her former glory.

Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones is perhaps the most famous example in recent memory. A favorite at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jones lost her shot at a medal when she tripped on hurdle. In London, four years later, she was one-tenth of a second from a bronze. But just months after that heartbreaking loss, she switched events (and seasons), taking up the unfamiliar sport of bobsledding. She was, as it turns out, not bad: After just a year, she and teammate Jamie Greubel finished second in the world on a two-person sled, earning her a spot on the U.S. team. Naturally, some of her new teammates -- most of whom had spent years training -- were none too happy about it.

Other notable sport-swapping carpetbaggers include Willie Gault, a former wide receiver for the Chicago Bears who made the U.S. bobsledding team in 1988, and Herschel Walker, a star NFL running back who made the bobsledding team in 1992.

There are a couple of reasons that so many aspiring Olympians turn to bobsled: If you're already an athlete, sledding isn't that hard to pick up. Besides the driver, the remaining team members are basically there to push for a few seconds at the start (and then duck). To be fair, that starting push requires world-class power and speed, but those are skills that are often honed in other sports.

But while the Olympic medals may be decided by mere thousandths of a second, the nature of bobsledding -- and the cost of fielding a competitive team -- renders the sport actually less competitive than many others. (A set of blades can cost $10,000 and a sled up to $100,000.) And there are only 17 tracks in the world.

Thus, poorer countries without training facilities have been known to happily accept carpetbobbers: North America, for instance, has at least four competition-ready tracks and, accordingly, produces many of the world's Olympic sledders: Athletes from the United States have represented Greece, Armenia, Venezuela and Thailand, among others.

Olympic carpetbagging is an evolving phenomenon, with new iterations debuting at virtually every Olympic Games. This year, for instance, a Tongan luger has emerged as a new type of athlete-mercenary: one sponsored by a marketing firm. For a price, 21-year-old Fuahea Semi moved to Germany, learned luge and changed his name to Bruno Banani, after a German underwear company -- part of an ambitious, Olympic-themed marketing campaign for the brand. The ploy was ultimately uncovered -- but, as it turns out, the athlete-for-hire proved pretty decent at luge. This year, he'll represent Tonga at Sochi, the first winter Olympian to represent the Pacific nation.

 

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