Why some Olympians can compete for countries they are not from

Elizabeth Swaney competed for Hungary in this year's Winter Olympics because she has Hungarian grandparents.

Elizabeth Swaney competed for Hungary in this year’s Winter Olympics because she has Hungarian grandparents.
David Ramos/Getty Images

  • A Jamaican bobsledder at this year’s Winter Olympics raced for the US in 2014.
  • The Olympics’ rules allow athletes with multiple nationalities to choose whom to compete for and even to change their competitive allegiance.
  • Citizenship laws vary by country, as do the reasons an athlete may have for switching countries.

When Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian raced in this Olympics’ women’s bobsledding event, she was doing so in her second Winter Olympics – but her first competing for Jamaica.

Fenlator-Victorian was a part of the US women’s bobsled team at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, but in 2015 she switched to her allegiance to Jamaica in hopes of inspiring more girls and children of color to take up the sport.

And she’s not the first Olympian to change teams. A South Korean speed skater named Ahn Hyun-soo not only switched to compete for Russia but even legally changed his name.

According to a report from Rob Hodgetts of CNN, 178 Winter Olympics athletes (about 6% of all athletes competing in Pyeongchang) are competing for countries other than the one of their birth.

A bylaw to Rule 41 of the Olympic Charter states that athletes with dual citizenship can represent the country of their choosing, and athletes who gain a new citizenship or wish to change their Olympic affiliation can do so as long as at least three years have passed since they most recently competed for their previous country in an Olympic Games or a similarly sanctioned competition.

Hodgetts reports that the US, Russia, and Canada are the countries with the most nationals competing for other countries, while South Korea, Canada, and Germany have the most non-native athletes competing for them.

Obviously, citizenship laws differ by country. Fenlator-Victorian was able to compete for Jamaica because her father is Jamaican.

On the other hand, Gary and Angelica di Silvestri, a married couple, essentially bought citizenship with the tiny Caribbean country of Dominica and ended up competing in the Sochi Olympics as part of the Dominica ski team, per Deadspin.

For many athletes, changing their national allegiances is the only way to keep their Olympic dreams alive, especially if their home country is stacked with talent in their particular sport. Such is the case with Carlijn Schoutens, a speed skater for Team USA who grew up in the Netherlands, a speed-skating powerhouse, per Yahoo Sports.

But others have more personal reasons. Hodgetts quotes Akuoma Omeoga, an American-born athlete competing on Nigeria’s women’s bobsled team, as saying: “Being Nigerian was always something that was definitely prominent in my childhood, as it is as much as in adulthood. That was the first culture that I’ve ever known.”