Olympic Athletes Get
the Fast-Track to Citizenship
from the Salt Lake Tribune
February 22, 2002
By Joanne van
Veldkamp will once again take part in the men's 10,000-meter speedskating
race. It will be his fourth outing at Olympic level at this distance.
In Albertville, he won gold and was the toast of the Netherlands,
the land where he was born and in which he still lives. But if he
should win again in Salt Lake City, it's the Belgians who will be
On Day Two of these Winter Olympics, Johann Muehlegg, a patriotic
German by birth, took gold in the 30-kilometer cross country skiing
race. Yet his congratulatory telegram came from King Juan Carlos
of Spain, whose anthem was sung in Meuhlegg's honor at the medal
Veldkamp and Muehlegg are two examples of an increasingly common
phenomenon: both have changed their citizenship to improve their
chances of competing in international sporting events. These athletes
are perhaps the ultimate opportunity-seekers, switching nationality
to improve their life opportunities. But they are fairly unique
among those seeking to adopt a new homeland in Europe. For the average
immigrant to Europe, gaining citizenship can take 10 years or more,
and applicants are required to actually live in the country in which
they hope to gain citizenship. Even obtaining legal immigrant status
is very difficult, and during the whole process, discrimination
rather than adulation is the name of the game.
The Olympic Charter states that individuals who are put forward
by National Olympic Committees compete for themselves, as individuals,
and not for their countries. Yet patriotism is a key element of
any Olympic Games--generally in a positive sense. The tear-jerking
moment of many an Olympic triumph is the hoisting of the flags and
singing of the national anthem of the winner's country. In an increasing
number of cases, however, we should perhaps call it the winner's
team, not the winner's country. Olympic athletes are demonstrating
that in pursuit of their desire to compete, changing citizenship
can be as easy as switching teams.
Meuhlegg took a year off from competition while he made the switch
from the German national team, with which he had "fallen out"
and was no longer happy, to the Spanish national team. Because his
mother has Spanish citizenship, it seemed like a natural choice.
But Meuhlegg, his home page makes clear, remains Bavarian, and German,
Veldkamp realized after the Lillehammer games that competition for
places on the Dutch skating team was becoming harder and harder.
With only three places available for a country with some two-dozen
top-level skaters at every distance, Veldkamp decided that the only
way to secure an Olympic future was to switch to plan B. B for Belgium.
He explains on his Web site how surprised the Belgians were by his
decision: they had no facilities for skating, no history of skating.
That didn't matter to Veldkamp: he explains that he needed a passport
to the Olympics and other international events, and Belgium gave
him that passport. He still lives in The Hague, Netherlands. He
has no obvious connection to Belgium, other than a passport, and
the title given him by the Dutch media of "Skating-Belgian."
When he took the bronze in the Nagano Olympics behind two Dutch
skaters, Holland treated it very much as a Dutch clean-sweep.
Veldkamp isn't the only Dutch skater to have taken this path either.
Other athletes have also switched teams along the way: in many cases
seeking not only the ability to compete, but also the opportunity
to train in good facilities, and make use of other resources. Emese
Hunyady, for example, switched from Hungary to Austria in the 1980s,
specifically in search of better training.
For the normal immigrant to Belgium, three years of legal residence
are required before a person can naturalize. In Austria, 10 years
of residence are required, as well as knowledge of the German language.
Spain also requires ten years of legal residence. None of these
countries has a regular immigration program like the one in the
U.S. There are no Green Card lotteries, and only few opportunities
for immigration as a skilled worker or as a student. Those people
who did immigrate to Europe legally in the 1950s to mid 1970s have
gradually brought immediate family members to join them, under legal
family reunification and family formation programs. Otherwise, the
majority of immigrants have either sought asylum in European states,
or entered illegally, and remained illegally, with amnesties as
their only hope for getting a legal status--and only years after
that having the opportunity to become citizens.
So, why do states grant the select few, the Veldkamps for example,
the chance to pursue the opportunities they seek in life, while
creating policies which are aimed at restricting the migration and
citizenship chances for the overwhelming majority of the world's
people? Why can Veldkamp get Belgian citizenship without even living
in the country, while the Moroccan immigrant who might be employed
sweeping the entrance area to the rink on which Veldkamp trains
will have to wait years? That immigrant probably cheers Veldkamp
on as hard as any of his Dutch or Belgian "compatriots"--but
is deliberately kept "outside" and is vilified by much
of the European media and population, as well as a number of political
parties, as a scrounger for seeking the opportunities life didn't
simply hand to him.
There is a cruel contradiction at work here. But there is also proof
that if governments choose to grant citizenship, they can do so
at their discretion. The average immigrants might not win a gold,
silver or bronze medal. But they will pay taxes and make their own
contributions to society if given a chance--as the American model
I wouldn't want to deny Veldkamp his chances in life: but others,
who don't compete on the Olympic plateau, shouldn't be denied theirs,
Selm is Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.