Lanaro is competing for another country because of his pride in his heritage. But he is also competing for a national team that could use his talent. The same can be said for runners David Torrence for Peru, Alexi Pappas for Greece, and Peter Callahan for Belgium, who are all Americans with ancestors born abroad. As Torrence put it to Runner’s World:
It boils down to why do I run? I love competing and racing and everything involved in that process, but I also really love to work with kids, inspire youth, and I think I am a part of a movement to get people running. In the U.S., there’s going to be a full team of people in every event in almost every sport. There’s no shortage of heroes or role models out there. But in Peru, they’re not sending full teams, they’re not sending a ton of athletes, not only in track and field, but across all sports.
And if an athlete has the talent, why be left out of the Olympics? Peter Spiro of Slate argued before the 2014 Winter Olympics:
It makes more sense to allow free Olympic association, with athletes playing for any team that will have them. The Olympic Charter notes that “the Olympics are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries.” That’s exactly right. We don’t require our major-league ballplayers to hail from the cities they play for, so why should we demand anything different of our Olympic athletes?
Follow the story lines of past Olympics and you find they aren’t just about countries, like the U.S. hockey victory over the Soviet Union in 1980, but also about people, like Michael Phelps’s record 22 medals.
Callahan, the Belgian olympian, takes an almost socialistic attitude toward the Olympics, saying athletes should “rightfully be distributed around the world and make those championships even better, even more competitive, even more exciting.”
The Olympic Charter requires only that an athlete be a national of the country for which he or she is competing. If they want to compete for a different nation, it has to be three years after they last competed for their country of origin. Becoming a national is not difficult for a talented athlete.
But there is a dark side to trying to distribute talented athletes to other countries. As Foreign Policy wrote in 2014, “opportunism knows no borders.” They write:
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).
Azerbaijan, for its part, has heavily recruited foreign-born athletes; half of its 50-person national team in the 2012 Olympics were naturalized citizens. Great Britain’s Olympic team in 2012 had 60 foreign-born athletes, who were labeled “Plastic Brits” by The Telegraph.