Yesterday in the Freakonomics blog, Ian Ayres argued that “Citizenship Flexibility at the Olympics Is a Good Thing,” because that’s the only way that all of the best athletes would compete at the Olympics. And there’s a certain logic behind the notion:
Ayres writes, “The country quota system keeps many of the best athletes home. If I were the fifth-best back-stroker in the world, I’d be upset that I couldn’t compete because of when I was born.” Now, before you start drafting that mock-touching epic about the sad life of the world’s fifth-best back-stroker (Possible titles: “On My Back and Screwed”? “I Stroked and Got the Shaft”?) , consider that in in the US Olympic trials, it’s often harder to make the team than it is to make it to the Olympic finals.
Ayres considers, then dismisses, team sports as a counterargument. What he wants to argue is this:
The beginnings of a new trend are indirectly pushing us toward more meritocratic and less nation-centric Olympics. Citizenship is becoming more fluid for Olympic athletes and it’s improving the quality of competition at the games in both individual and team events.
I agree — sort of. Definitely, you get a higher-caliber event if all the best athletes are in it. But it I kept thinking that in another way, the fans are getting cheated. See, the fans are going to root for someone, which is an emotional response. And if there’s “a free market for Olympic citizenship,” as Ayres would have it, we’d have every event be like table tennis, where most of the field are either Chinese citizens or Chinese emigres.
In fact, doing away with the notion of nations would also do away with the absurd notion of a medal count, too. And you wouldn’t have outrageous events like the controversy in the men’s basketball final at the 1972 Olympics, when the officials awarded the Soviets a second chance to score a winning basket, or the case of light middleweight boxer Roy Jones Jr., who outlanded his South Korean opponent, Park Si-Hun 86-32 in the finals at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, and still “lost” the fight in a split decision. (Korean officials wined and dined the three officials who awarded the bout to Park.)
But doing away with country identities would also do away with all those incredibly poignant stories about an athlete’s success at a country bringing joy to it. And it would do away with a huge motivation for the athletes and the fans.
Consider something like the PGA Tour, where international golfers (Ernie Els from South Africa, Vijay Singh from Fiji, Mike Weir from Canada, Padraig Harrington from Ireland) tee it up with a bunch of Americans. Rooting for the individuals is OK, and the level of competition is high.
Now consider the difference professional golfers feel between competing in the Ryder Cup and competing in the the Buick Open, or in the difference in fan enthusiasm.
But then then this morning I was watching the bronze-medal match in men’s beach volleyball, when the perfect counter-argument to Ayres appeared on my telly. One team was from Brazil. The other was also from Brazil, only they were competing for Georgia. Georgia offered them citizenship in 2006, with one stipulation: that they adopt noms de jeu.
What are the two names? Why, Geor and Gia, of course. Now put them together: Geor/Gia. Get it? Geor-Gia … “Georgia.”
No, I’m not making this up. I couldn’t; it’s too bizarre. If you don’t believe me, look at the photo at the top of the blog post. That’s Geor, puttin’ up a block, with his XFL-style stage name on his jersey.
So we’re left with a quandary: Either we have the absurdity of countries fielding crappy national teams in some events (the Onion story, “Netherlands Taught How To Play Softball Seconds Before Being Shoved Onto Field Against U.S. Team,” lands this one for a perfect 10), or we have ridiculous “national teams” like Geor/Gia.
Come to think of it, either way you can’t lose. God, I love the Olympics.