Nationality and Citizenship in Sports: a Look Into the Laws of France, FINA and the IOC.

France Laws

First and foremost, citizenship as status is related to the nationality laws that determine who is legally entitled to membership of a country. Each nation will have its own sets of requirements, but a quick look into the French laws is obviously what is pertinent to the story.

There are multiple ways to obtain French nationality, but here we shall discuss obtaining it by decree, as it is the only option for the Russian swimmers. Through the decree route, the foreigner must fulfill many criteria, including residing in France for five years, having a resident permit, and lacking a criminal file. Moreover, he/she must show willingness to integrate to the population and to learn the language (B1 level required), history and culture of the nation.

However, there are loopholes and the waiting period can be reduced to two years according to the Civil Code if the foreigner meets some specific exceptions, including possessing significant skills that can be of use to France (Exception No. 2), or if he/she has integrated particularly well and has accomplished important changes and developments in the fields of civil law, science, economy, culture, or sports (Exception No.3).

This could be lifted entirely if “the foreigner has rendered exceptional services to France or whose naturalization presents an exceptional interest for France.”

FINA – International Swimming Federation

Regarding changes of sport nationality, the General Rules Document approved by the FINA Congress as of July 22, 2017 has two sections in ‘GR 2 International Relations.’

GR 2.5 states that in general when a competitor represents his/her country in a competition, he/she shall be a citizen, whether by birth or naturalization, of the nation he/she represents, provided that a naturalized citizen has lived in that country for at least one year prior to that competition.

In addition, GR 2.6 states that any competitor changing his sport nationality from one national governing body to another must have resided in the territory of, and been under the jurisdiction of the latter for at least twelve months prior to his first representation for the country.

  • Proof of residency

– Residence means the place/country where the competitor or competition official “lives and sleeps,” and where he/she can be found in the majority of days of the year.

– The proof of residence must include documentation establishing the applicant resides in the country. In this regard the official school or university confirmation or employment contract or any other relevant documentation may constitute evidence.

– Certified registration of an address in the “new” country for at least twelve (12) months prior to first representation of the competitor or competition official for the “new” country must be sent to FINA.

  • Proof of jurisdiction

– Certified membership in a club of the new country.

– Confirmation from the FINA Member of that country.

– Official result lists from national championships, national, regional or international club competitions in which the applicant has participated for his/her “new” club during the GR 2.6 requested time (i.e. 12 months).

– Applicants cannot represent any of the countries during the “transfer period.”

Any application for change of affiliation must of course be approved by FINA.

IOC – International Olympic Committee

As for participating in the Olympics with a new country, we must look into the IOC’s Olympic Charter in force as from October 9, 2018. Under Rule 41, entitled ‘Nationality of Competitors,’ the IOC does not distinguish between nationalities obtained through birth, bloodline or residence, and it establishes the criteria for a national that has two or more nationalities at the same time.

The most important bye-law to Rule 41 is:

  • A competitor who has represented one country in the Olympic Games, in continental or regional games, or in world or regional championships recognized by the relevant international federation, and who has changed his nationality or acquired a new nationality, may participate in the Olympic Games to represent his new country provided that at least three years have passed since the competitor last represented his former country.

The main point and purpose of the rule and of this ‘waiting period’ is to create fairness and integrity of international competitions and to deter unethical commerce of nationalities.

However, the IOC allows the relative National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and International Federation (IF) to agree amongst themselves to reduce this three-year period, or even cancel it when waived by the country of origin. The final decision, assuming the agreement of the above organizations, is made by the IOC Executive Board which takes into account the circumstances of each case and approves every citizenship change.

Discussion and A Look Into Other Sports

This issue of citizenship changes is fairly rare in the world of synchronized swimming, but it has been a recurring topic in other sports like football, figure skating, track and field or gymnastics. Recently, a more or less similar case shook the gymnastics community when a scandal exploded after two American athletes were granted the option to represent Belarus in the 2015 world championships and the 2016 Olympics, over local Belarusian gymnasts, despite having zero ties to the country. 

Switching citizenships, particularly in extreme cases of ‘free international agents’ like these where there are no clear ties to the new country, may challenge dominant meanings attached to practicing Olympic sports and simply to the Olympic spirit, which has evolved to be associated with strong patriotism and nationalistic pride. Indeed, the Olympics wouldn’t be nearly as popular without the nationalism angle.

So, is citizenship and representing your country not more than just an individual opportunity at a sporting event? Or is it all just a business deal? Even if it’s technically legal and done within the rules, does it mean it is ethical and just?
But, what if switching countries is the only way for some athletes to achieve their dreams and go to the Olympics? Shouldn’t they go about it at all costs, even if it means taking the place of local athletes with the same dreams?

This all certainly brings up the question of the values of citizenship, which is certainly a multifaceted concept that includes notions of equality, loyalty, identity, and even sacrifice for one’s country, and its discussion should entail both formal aspects (legal status and rights) and informal aspects (participation, identity and belonging).

This issue of swapping countries in sports is not black and white, and it is certainly not a new one as many international sports federations are struggling with it. Each case is different with its own nuances, particularities and interrogations. If you’re curious to read more about it, here are some suggested pieces to start you off:

As they currently stand, FINA’s regulations are maybe too lax compared to other international federations when it comes to determining which and how swimmers are eligible to compete for a different country. As explained above, a swimmer may be eligible simply by becoming a national in the country he/she chooses to represent and by residing there for as little as one year.

Comparatively, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) recently modified its rules, following a complete ban on nationality changes in 2017 that occurred after abusive changes from athletes coming from countries with too much depth. The IAAF has now lined-up with the IOC and implemented a three-year waiting period.

It is not a cure-all, but enforcing and moving to a three-year “cool-off” period may preserve the concept of fairness, and discourage opportunistic athletes and international federations from obtaining athletes on a relatively short notice. It could also potentially increase the amount a federation would have to invest in an athlete before it could receive the benefit of his/her services in international competitions, and thus potentially dissuade it from doing so. Finally, it could also help maintain a patriotic appeal to the teams and events.

FIFA’s rules are certainly interesting and worth looking into as well. They state that once a player competes for a country in a major senior international event (Olympic Games, World Cup, UEFA Euro, Pan-American Games, etc.), he/she is tied to that country forever going forward.

The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) is even more drastic in that area. Foreign-born players with bloodline connection with the country they wish to represent must prove their legal nationality through a passport obtained before turning age 16 to be considered “local.” Players who obtained their passport afterwards can still play but would be considered as “naturalized” players, and FIBA allows one naturalized player to be on the roster of a national team per game.

As a final example, the table tennis federation recently tightened up its rules, with longer waiting periods the older the athletes who want to change nationalities are. For an athlete under 15, he/she must wait three years before representing the new country. Between 15 and 18, it’s now five years, and between 18 and 21, it increases to seven years. After 21, it goes up to a nine years wait time.

Once again, each country and sports federation has its own rules, statutes and exceptions, so it truly seems that there are no simple answers and no long-term solution in sight. It would be ideal to find global solutions to make these sporting rules more linear and consistent amongst international federations, and with state laws.

Article by Christina Marmet.

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