Are Olympians Human Imports?

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There are many factors which affect an individual’s decision to immigrate to another country.   Two groups that categorize such factors depends on whether immigrants are “pushed” out of their homeland or “pulled” into a new country. Common “pull” factors include better job and educational opportunities, and family reunifications. A less common factor for immigrating is for the chance to compete in the Olympics.

“Seven Olympic medals since 2000 have been won by five new citizens who had been elite performers for their home countries” (National Journal). Ice dancer Tanith Belbin is one example. Born in Canada, she came to the US after partnering with US citizen, Ben Agosto, in 1998. However, Belbin was not yet naturalized and could not compete in the 2002 Winter Olympics. Instead, she had to petition and ask Congress to allow her to attain citizenship in time for the 2006 Winter Olympics.

This brings up the question: have Olympians become a US import?

“We call them migrant laborers,” said Kevin B. Wamsley, a co-director of the Canada-based International Center for Olympic Studies. “Certainly, there’s a value for nations on medals” (New York Times).

However, it is important to point out that not all individuals come to the US for the sole purpose of competing in the Olympics. Lopez Lomong, for example, ran in the Beijing and London Summer Olympics. He gained his citizenship in 2007 after fleeing civil war in Sudan. He explains: “This is my gift, to give back to this country that has given me a second chance. I love the United States” (Moffett).

In short, countries attract immigrants for many varying reasons. We must take into account the disparity between immigrants with lower or high human capital, and how that affects policy decisions.


Photograph: Ben Agosto and Tanith Belbin

New York Times: Swapping Passports in Pursuit of Olympic Medals

National Journal: More Than 40 Olympians Are Foreign Born Immigrants on the US Olympic Team 

20 responses to “Are Olympians Human Imports?

  1. Interesting article! However, I feel that you could’ve expanded upon the other reasons why immigrants may move to America and the other pull factors America creates.

  2. I had never thought of Olympians as imports to the USA. It’s an interesting idea. I do think that they are imports if they are getting priority citizenship in order to give back to this country. It is frustrating that they have the ability to jump in front of the line of people waiting to receive their citizenship because they will bring fame to the country.

  3. This was a very interesting article before I read this I had no idea that some of America’s Olympians were foreign born. The fact that America imports talent form other countries raises another interesting question: Should Olympians only compete for the country of their Origin? If this became a rule then how affected would America’s athletes be? Would America still win as many medals as it has in the past?

    • I also agree that it is unfair that the process of naturalization is expedited for certain immigrants. Instead of naturalizing working immigrants that contribute to America’s economy, immigrants who only better America’s status as a superpower receive better treatment.

  4. Interesting how a chance to compete in the Olympics is a pull factor for immigration, but is rarely ever talked about. Also, I never would have thought about these immigrants as laborers and that medals would have some sort of value. Will definitely be thinking more about this. Great article!

  5. Very interesting! However, I believe that the article would cover more if it expanded on the different pull factors America has to offer

  6. I never knew that immigrant Olympians have become citizens of the US in order to compete for the US. It is very interesting how this can be a factor for people to immigrate to the US. I wonder if they get any special privileges because they are “athletes”

  7. Interesting topic! However I think you could have focused more on what this says about Americans. Americans are willing to “use” people that bring benefits to the country. What does this say about who gets to be an immigrant and who receives certain opportunities?

  8. This article was very interesting. I am surprised that we do not hear about these immigrants often. I also was not aware that those who come to America in order to participate in the Olympics are considered “laborers” and that that nations benefit from the value of the medals.

  9. Looking at Olympians as human imports is but another way in which humans can be viewed as commodities. I have never realized that the term “migrant laborer” could be applied to Olympians as Wamsley states. A question to ponder with regards to this topic is does that further instill a sense of hierarchy with regards to naturalization as citizens are more than willing to naturalize someone who can bring home the gold in the Olympics, but refuse to allow other immigrants citizenship despite their contributions to society?

  10. This article reminds me of the problem that Kenya was facing in 2005, and may very well still be facing. Many of their top level track and field runners defected to other nations such as Quatar in favor of better opportunities. There are reports that some of the runners were paid substantial sums of money compared to what one typically makes in Kenya to defect and change flags. (

  11. I had wondered about this watching the Olympics last summer. It does demonstrate that the U.S. places value on some immigrants over others, refuting that they’re all equals under the law’s eye.

  12. It’s interesting to label Olympic athletes as “laborers”. They’re put in the same category as others who may do manual labor and are underrepresented while they themselves are glorified as Olympians. It’s a fresh perspective to view both sides of the spectrum.

  13. Such an interesting topic; I had never thought about Olympians as “migrant workers.” Thinking about this concept within the context of anti-immigrant sentiment within the United States would have been another intersection tangent to look into. Just thinking about Social Justice by the Numbers, I wonder what numbers would look like between those who enjoy watching the Olympics versus support for immigration into the United States. I can just imagine the surprise people would feel when they realize some Olympians are actually very recent/new immigrants.

  14. It is interesting that Olympians aren’t questioned for their citizenship status. It might also good to consider race because it is possible that our society values people form different countries more or less based on stereotypes of race.

  15. It interesting to think about the concept of athletes being pulled into the United States. Typically the notion is that America is causing a brain drain on other countries by taking their intellectuals. I enjoy this new perspective on talent immigration. It shows how there are quite a variety of pull factors into the U.S.

  16. Wow this made me think of the price U.S. citizenship really is. I think it’s sad that the U.S. government will use these athletes circumstances to promote the illusion that the U.S. is a place of opportunity when this nation barely gives the chance for immigrant children to attend higher education. It is refreshing to know what the U.S. government truly values.

  17. I always thought of people that the US attracted in this way would just be people like engineers or scientists. We seldom hear about the US granting temporary citizenship to people coming to play sports. We don’t really get anything from winning medals except for pride. Winning medals is the one way that the US shows our prestige. We take advantage of these individuals and just exploit them for our own gain, but just to win a sort of pissing contest.

  18. I never knew that the U.S. Olympics was an attraction or pull factor for immigrants to come to the U.S. This is never talked about because people watch the Olympics to see these great athletes compete against one another. Now labeling Olympic athletes as “migrant workers” changes my entire perspective of the Olympic games. Its very unfortunate that these athletes believe that the U.S. is using them for their own good when in reality, the U.S. is exploiting them. Overall, great, eye opening article.

  19. Very interesting topic. I really enjoyed how well this article was written, it was very clear and to the point. It’s interesting to see why different people would come to America from other countries and I particularly liked the part about Lopez Lamong. Great article!

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