Problematizing Olympic Nationality

One can hope that the convening of the Tokyo Olympics will be a cause for global celebration. Tokyo could prove a focal point for international solidarity, a moment of relief and release after all of humanity faced down an insidious, invisible, and largely indiscriminate attacker. Unified as we otherwise may be, athletes will still come to the Games as representatives of nation-states. That may be an unavoidable organizing principle. Less justifiable will be the requirement that athletes be nationals of the states they play for. Under the Olympic Charter and the rules of particular sporting federations, athletes are subject to a non-state nationality regime that restricts the capacity of individuals to compete for countries for whose delegations they would otherwise qualify. This regime looks to maintain the putative integrity of Olympic competition by maintaining the unity of sporting and sociological national identity. But that legacy of the twentieth century no longer works in the twenty first. Nationality and associated criteria for participant eligibility undermine the autonomy of athletes and the quality of participation. The rules can no longer guarantee any affective tie between athlete and nation, instead arbitrarily enabling some, but not all, to compete on the basis of citizenship decoupled from identity. We don’t require that athletes playing for our professional sports teams hale from the cities they represent. There’s no reason why we need to require more of our Olympic athletes.

Peter J. Spiro, Problematizing Olympic Nationality, AJIL Unbound, 2020.