February 19, 2014

How many Sochi athletes are competing for a country that is not their birth nation?

When the best athletes around the globe gather for the Olympic Games, national pride is often tied to which country wins the most medals. Yet patriotic victories can become confusing when some countries grant citizenship to elite foreign-born athletes. 

All this made us wonder: Just how many Sochi athletes are competing for a country other than the one in which they were born?

FT_14.02.19_OlympicsForeignBornA Pew Research Center data analysis finds at least 120 athletes, or 4% of the nearly 3,000 competing in Sochi, are competing for countries other than their birth nations. (For context, about 3% of the world’s people live in countries where they weren’t born.) About a third of athletes did not indicate their country of birth, so for the purposes of our analysis, we assumed they were born in the country they are representing in the Olympics.

Sometimes, global “elite” migrants are part of their Olympic teams because they moved to that country; in other cases, they have family lineage tying them to it. Some athletes, meanwhile, found a country willing to grant them nationality and allow them to compete.

Canada ranks at the top with nine foreign-born athletes in this year’s Olympics. For example, Jamaican-born Lascelles Brown has Canadian citizenship and is part of the Canadian bobsled team. The United States ties for the silver ranked just behind Canada, with seven foreign-born athletes. Figure-skater Simon Shnapir is one example – he was born in Russia but won bronze for the U.S. with partner Marissa Castelli. Gus Kenworthy, known for his silver medal in freestyle skiing and also his efforts to help stray dogs in Sochi, was born in Britain.

Based on the available data, the number of foreign-born competitors appears to be higher in some sports than in others. For example, about one-in-ten alpine skiers are foreign-born, while two-in-ten figure skaters were born in a country other than the one they are representing on ice.

The practice of adopting athletes from abroad garnered media attention this year after South Korea-born speed skater Viktor Ahn won gold for his adopted country of Russia. (In 2006, he won three gold medals for South Korea, under the name Ahn Hyun-soo.)

But Ahn is not alone. Since the 1920s, countries have allowed certain  athletes to become citizens, hoping to gain an edge on the medal counts. The Olympic rules simply state that an athlete must be a citizen of the country to qualify. The countries, of course, create the rules for citizenship.

The International Olympic Charter has rules (Chapter 5, Rule 41) that attempt to thwart efforts to find flag-switching loopholes. Athletes with multiple nationalities can choose their Olympic team, but if they’ve competed internationally for one country they must wait three years before competing under a different flag.

Some countries like Israel and Azerbaijan that are not known for winter sports have exclusively foreign-born teams. Three of the five Olympians on Israel’s entire team were born in the Ukraine while the other two were born in the U.S. and Belgium. Competitors on Azerbaijan’s team were born in Russia, Italy and Austria.

Topics: Migration

  1. Photo of Phillip Connor

    is a senior researcher focusing on demography and migration studies at Pew Research Center.


  1. charles3 years ago

    why did they do it

  2. Madison Blankenship3 years ago

    This info is great for my essay I am doing. I am in middle school from McDowell county. Don’t worry I will give u some cred in my bibliography

  3. THE3 years ago

    What would be interesting to me to see is how many “athletes” purchased their way into the games by competing for countries that really don’t have a winter – such as the couple from Dominica who really live in Montana in the United States. These people are violating the spirit of the Olympics even if they “qualify” to represent their “country”. They couldn’t qualify by any measurement of athletes who have devoted their lives to their sport, so they bought their citizenship in a country that normally wouldn’t participate, and get to dine out on the experience of having been “Olympic Atheletes.” That tarnishes the experience for me.

  4. Dan3 years ago

    Any data on what percentage of athletes train the US, as opposed to their home countries?

  5. wild3 years ago

    Great data. The US and Russia are tied with same number of foreign born athletes, but the US appears to be way ahead in complaining about Russia’s foreign born medal winners.

    1. SAKearney3 years ago

      I apologize for hiting reply..I meant to comment on a new thread! Sorry about that!

  6. JJ4 years ago

    It seems unfair to characterize Viktor Ahn as a “mercenary,” as I’ve seen some people do here in the comments section.

    His native Korea didn’t want anything to do with him, after he incurred a serious knee injury. They said he was “too old,” so they dropped him from their national team. He didn’t willingly leave Korea for Russia in order to chase the money—he just happened to find a willing benefactor in Russia. Can you blame him for picking the country that offered the most support (especially if he was in a position where he had to change nationality if he wanted to continue his career?)

    Russia took him in and nursed him back to health. They took care of his knee rehabilitation. Ahn hasn’t competed internationally for Korea in over three years. He is now Russian. The Russians earned their short-track success in Sochi by putting in the time, effort and, yes, money.

    Take a look at the coaching roster of the short-track teams. America, Britain, France, Kazakhstan and many other countries have recruited Korean coaches (all former skaters) for their teams. Would you direct the same criticism about “going against Olympic values” in their direction too? I doubt you would.

  7. slk4 years ago

    there’s usually only one reason, most athletes switch allegiance…there not good enough to make the home teams roster!!! viktor ahn was getting up in age when s korea decided to go young!!! but otherwise, they don’t medal!!!

  8. Kit4 years ago

    Nobody but the athletes themselves know why some athletes change nationality at any age. People who are not athletes change country citizenship at any age also, and it is usually for a complex web of reasons. Some women come to some countries because there are better opportunities and protections for women, for example. Some homosexuals of both sexs move to countries where they are less likely to be killed for being homosexual, and while some homosexuals are aware of their sexual orientation from birth, until one reaches a certain age it isdifficult to move if the parents do not want to. Some come because they can make a better living in a new country.

    Should these people have to give up their athletic dreams and career just because life circumstances force them to move? I think the three year provision is enough to convince athletes to not change countries for trivial reasons, since many athletes have only a short career at their peak levels. A few may move to have a better chance at participating in the Olympics, but most probably have other reasons as well.

  9. Angelica4 years ago

    This really helped thanks

  10. J Flack4 years ago

    I would also think that a reason one third did not answer is that they don’t prefer to make their country of birth an issue if it is different than the country they represent. How many lurkers in that 33% ?

    Simple control, call or check the CoB of all 221 Canadians. If the stat holds up, the article has a point.

    Well maybe. Of the 3% of people not living in their country of birth, what percent were refugees versus migrants for other reasons?


  11. Stephen Hill4 years ago

    An interesting article as far as it goes. Looking at some of your examples I think a clean and clear distinction can be drawn between those athletes looking for a country where their perhaps more limited abilities permit them to compete in contradistinction to those athletes who arrived at their adopted country through a normal immigration process, such as the USA and Canada (traditional immigration destinations), Israel being a seeming mixed bag (those Ukrainian born fleeing anti-semitism and Belgian and US born looking for a competitive berth) and Russia out and out buying an olympic medal. Legal dual nationality is another issue altogether. As I said good article as far as it goes.

  12. Kathy4 years ago

    Along this same line of thinking…I couldn’t help but notice how many Olympic athletes train, live, work, and attend school in the USA. It would be interesting to know the actual numbers in this regard. It is disappointing that the Olympics is billed as friendly international competition when facts such as those pointed out in your article and what I heard told on tv broadcasts indicate otherwise. Like so many other things, the competition as it was originally intended would not be recognizable to the “original” organizers.

  13. Kristen Worley4 years ago

    I found this article very inaccurate. Using Canada as an example, where (3) countries Russia, USA and Canada have twice the amount of athletes competing then all the other countries. Canada has 221 athletes at the games, with only 9 athletes in this model (less then 4%. This is an awful number/percentage for Canada – Canada an immigration country, with over 45% growing diverse country and growing in leaps and bounds. Indicates, as we know few Canadian youth can’t even get to the start line due to their diversity or cultural background. Canada prides itself as the most cultural and diverse country in the world, and we really don’t know who are best athletes are yet as many can’t get to the start line. Clearly showing in our country we have a growing problem and only will get bigger as our immigration and diversity policies are in collision with the outdated Olympic Movement.

  14. Smilinturtle4 years ago

    While I did not look up every athlete the article is somewhat misleading. For example Jan Heduc’s parents left for Germany when he was a baby and moved to Canada when he was five….I don’t think his Citizenship was granted in the hopes he would become a skier. Chritine Nesbitt while born in Melbourne has a Canadian father and grew up in Canada. Their may be similar examples but didn’t go through the entire team.

  15. Joyceg4 years ago

    It seems that this practice could change the scope of country competing against another country. It seems that this could be a case of a country with money to spend offering to buy an athletes citizenship in order to bolster their team. It seems to be an unethical practice, but i can see that Russia was eager to add to their team and to gain from that. It seems that an athlete that is not loyal to their country is not a great example of sportsmenship for an event that is primarily about country vs country competition. I could understand competitors participating from another country if they moved as a small child NOT already involved in athletic competition, but an adult that switches for the sole purpose to compete is questionable at best.

    1. Sabrina3 years ago

      Totally agree with this comment….You should absolutely be only allowed to represent the country in which you spend the majority of your life….