Countries craving glory dangle passports for elite athletes aching for Olympic gold—as the meaning of citizenship, says this law professor, continues to tarnish

Picking Winners

From the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Nexus.

By Karen Gross / Photography by Michelle Yee / Illustration by Jack Dylan

If you were born and raised in a country like Canada, chances are you don't wake up every morning and celebrate your luck. Citizenship is something we tend to take for granted, unless we had to fight for it, relocate for it, spend years pursuing it, or prove ourselves in other ways in order to obtain it. And that's why it's so fascinating to Ayelet Shachar, Canada Research Chair in Citizenship and Multiculturalism, and professor of law, political science and global affairs.  Shachar, born and bred in Israel, earned her doctorate at Yale. She and her husband, Prof. Ran Hirschl, then came to the University of Toronto, where they gained their Canadian citizenship the traditional way—living, working, creating a home, and forging an enduring connection with their new community. It was a seminal experience for Shachar, whose research route has been carved in its wake.

"I think precisely because I didn't take citizenship for granted, because I had gone through the process of immigration and naturalization, I became much more aware of how difficult it might be to acquire, how precious citizenship is, and how lucky people are to have it as a natural born right," she says.

Shachar took on the issue of citizenship by birth in her 2009 award-winning book, The Birthright Lottery: Citizenship and Global Inequality (Harvard University Press).  Now, she's turned her attention to the touchy concept of citizenship as a recruitment tool, and its increasing use and abuse in the worldwide hunt for triumph.  Setting her sights on the Olympic Games, Shachar argues passports are becoming a powerful form of international currency. Elite athletes who have no real ties or connections to the countries that covet them are being wooed and enticed—offered the precious prize of citizenship in exchange for a whiff of gold.

"There's something deeply ironic about the notion of saying 'We grant you citizenship precisely because we care about our nation's position in the world,' even if you  have not actually complied with what is typically required of someone applying for citizenship," she says.

Shachar offers several striking examples of this phenomenon, as part of an extensive article she published in the Yale Law Journal last year.  In "Picking Winners: Olympic Citizenship and the Global Race for Talent,” she outlines the egregious case of an Ethiopian runner, who says she was rejected three times by her home country's team due to her Christian religious affiliation. The runner was ultimately hooked by Bahrain and won gold on the world track stage in 2007 and 2009. She has since said she is supported by Bahrain’s government "morally and financially" despite hardly having lived there. Shachar also tells the tale of the two "Canadian" hockey teams at the 2006 Turin Olympics. One was actually Italy's team, but featured at least nine Canadian players, some of whom had scant previous ties to the host country.

“These players had strong ties to Canada, but because Italy needed players for its national team, they were selected over native-born Italians to represent Italy as its citizens, ”she says.  In another case, a Canadian-born ice-dancing champion obtained her U.S. citizenship through a special bill signed by former president George W. Bush, less than two months before the Turin games opened. The skater, Tanith Belbin, had been living in the U.S. and representing it at other international events, but she couldn't skate for the Americans at the Olympics without the U.S. passport.

And that's what makes the Olympics stand out, Shachar says. It's one of the few entities that holds citizenship as an absolute prerequisite to participation, and the ultimate example of what Shachar sees as a striking shift in the meaning of citizenship itself. From an ideal whose essence traditionally implied membership, social attachment and a sense of community, the concept is evolving into a much more strategic and opportunistic transaction between national governments and human capital.

Prof. Ayelet Shachar: “We’re at a juncture. It’s hard to predict how this will come out in the end.”Prof. Ayelet Shachar: “We’re at a juncture. It’s hard to predict how this will come out in the end.”

"When you think of this notion of people being parachuted, or really fast-tracked into membership without having these other components," she says, "that traditional ideal becomes very tricky."

The issue has been brewing for decades, with glory-hungry countries poaching each other's highly talented citizens over everything from scientific, academic and intellectual prowess to Oscar-winning acting excellence. Shachar's captivation with the Olympics was born out of a broader study of changing immigration patterns involving highly skilled migrants. Even as many countries are tightening their immigration requirements and making it more difficult for refugees and family members to gain residency, they are finding more ways to bring in migrants who might enhance their standing on the world stage, or otherwise contribute to their long-term prosperity.

Often, it's a wealthier country raiding a relatively disadvantaged nation, and that's a big concern for immigration rights advocates, such as prominent Canadian lawyer Barbara Jackman, LLB 1976.

"I am uncomfortable with the concept because I think it's not fair," she says. "It may be fair to the individual who's being parachuted in because that person is going to get opportunities and advantages they may not get in their home country. But it's not fair to anybody else."

Jackman has practiced immigration and refugee law for more than three decades, arguing a number of Charter of Rights cases before the Supreme Court of Canada. Tilting the balance in favour of those with special talents, she argues, is unjust at almost every level.

"It's not fair to the country they're coming into, the country they've left, or the other athletes in the country they are coming into, who've worked hard to get to the top, and who might be displaced as a result," Jackman says.

That's one side of the argument. The other involves that crucial shift identified by Schachar, and what makes an immigrant desirable to a country in the first place. Every year, more than half of the 250,000 immigrants Canada accepts are selected based on their skills and education, and how they might contribute to the country's long-term economic needs and growth. The other half is made up of humanitarian and family reunification cases.  Like many other countries, Canada reserves a special spot for the super-skilled:  immigrants with "extraordinary talent," whose residency requirements are sometimes shortened and who are granted citizenship on a highly expedited basis. The government does not publish the data for that segment, so the number of cases expedited in any given year is not clear.

Shachar says that elite group is relatively small, but overall, the immigration numbers are shifting in a troubling way. "The trend in the last few years has been to shrink down the refugee category and expand other categories," she notes. "I personally think that's not the ideal balance. Canada has multiple commitments to humanitarianism and family reunification, in addition to its commitment to economic migrants."

In fact, Canada recently temporarily suspended part of its family reunification program, in an effort to clear a backlog of sponsored parents and grandparents waiting to come in to the country. At the same time, the government has slightly expanded the overall number of people it admits.

"The trajectory has been to change the categories internally," Shachar says, "not just in terms of getting in more immigrants under the skills category, but they've also changed the definition of skilled migrants under the federal program. So it's not as easy to come in as it was before."

Other countries are now looking to Canada as a model for reshaping their own immigration policies, with economic migrants increasingly targeted as the recruits everyone wants. This growing global strategy of picking winners, whether in business, academia or athletics, has simply been highlighted by the Olympic examples Shachar raises. What to do about it is a question that has confounded scholars, politicians, and sporting officials for years.

It's one of the few entities that holds citizenship as an absolute prerequisite to participation, and the ultimate example of what Shachar sees as a striking shift in the meaning of citizenship itself.

"We think about it with a tremendous sense of sadness and regret," says Bruce Kidd, professor and former dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education. "The sports community has worried about this and wrestled with it for a very long time."

But Kidd, a champion runner who competed on Canada's 1964 Olympic team and one of the country's most ardent promoters of amateur sport, says it's a very tough issue to tackle. The world is changing and so is the notion of what constitutes national representation. In the case of athletes, matters are further complicated by the fact that where they reside is often not where they train.

"Canadian athletes train all over the world," he notes. "Domicile is a very hard one to nail in a way that would be fair to everybody." It's also impossible to tell an athlete where they can and cannot compete, especially when their Olympic dreams may be at stake and an eager country is willing to take them in.

"I know Canadians who, if they could have skied in the Olympics for Ghana, would have gone to Ghana and done that," Kidd says.

Andrea St. Bernard, JD 2005, immigrated to Canada from Grenada with her family when she was a baby. A citizen of both countries, St. Bernard will represent Grenada in taekwondo at the London Olympics this summer. Although she grew up in Canada, St. Bernard spent most of her summers in Grenada. She took up the taekwondo after completing her undergraduate degree, training at a club in Toronto and reaching the competitive stage while she attended law school.  St. Bernard amassed a stack of regional and national medals. But when it came time to compete internationally, she found Canada's training demands clashed with her budding career as a corporate lawyer at McMillan LLP in Toronto.

"There was more opportunity for me to reach international level competition through Grenada," she says. "At the time, it was like having two full time jobs and I couldn't keep up with the schedule of Canadian competition the way I would have needed to in order to make the team."

In fact, St. Bernard will be the first taekwondo athlete to represent Grenada at an Olympics. Her dual nationality and her desire to contribute made hers an easy choice. But, she says, if another athlete wanted to swap citizenship for the sake of Olympic glory, that wouldn't bother her “because changing or gaining nationality is often about the pursuit of opportunities that may not otherwise be available.  To the extent that the country is willing to call them a citizen and make them an ambassador of sport, I can't say I think there's a major issue," she says.

But as passport-swapping becomes more popular, some amateur sports federations are tightening their own rules.  FINA, the international swimming federation, requires that athletes must have resided in a country and been affiliated with its national federation for at least one year before they can represent it in competition.  The IAAF, which governs international track and field, now mandates that an athlete be a citizen of a country for at least two years prior to competing internationally. This new rule was instituted expressly to prevent countries from "buying" medal contenders.

Confronting the issue at the federation level is a good start, Shachar says. She also supports the idea of mutual responsibility, whereby a country that scoops up another's human treasure reciprocates by making some sort of return investment.

"If another country takes them away," she says, "our current international system doesn't have a way to say perhaps this is unfair, perhaps the recruiting country has some obligations."

Bruce Kidd agrees, and says payback should extend far beyond the world of sport. "The First World should do this, but we should do this for way more than just athletes," he says. "We should do it for physicians, for nurses, and for everybody else."

Looking for remedies to this modern-day dilemma is one approach. The other involves figuring out what's causing it. Why, wonders Shachar, are countries so willing to undermine their own increasingly stringent immigration rules, to upend the traditional ideals of citizenship and nationality, all in the ironic pursuit of achieving international success and glory? And what does that say about the future of citizenship itself?

Barbara Jackman is skeptical. Picking winners, no matter what the category, is no way to build a community, she says.  Not unless a government is also willing to welcome the pick's family members, and truly commit to their future.

"It's a very segmented way to look at a person when you're just looking at the person as a cog that's going to help us in the wheel of development," she argues. "The whole concept of family is lost."

But Shachar, who describes herself as an optimist by nature, says she sees this moment not as an end, but as an opportunity. With the true nature of citizenship arguably at a crossroads, perhaps states and leaders will be forced to find a better way—one that feeds the needs of individual nations, while still satisfying those people whose sense of community, connection, and self are tied to the country in which they live.

"We're at a juncture. Traditional concepts of identity and membership still matter greatly to individuals," she says. "They matter to countries as well. Citizenship is in flux. It's hard to predict how this will come out in the end."