Pledging allegiance: A look at the nationality transfer system

By Ammar Moussa

March 6, 2017

Every year at the NCAA Cross Country championships my coach Mark Wetmore would face the same line of questioning. “How’s the team…what’s the strategy tomorrow…and how do you feel about foreign athletes in the NCAA?” Every year, he would reiterate the same thoughts that he had been on the record about for years. Despite his well established position, it would inevitably be some “new” controversy, drawing out hot opinions and scathing comments on world famous message boards. And for a few days, you could count on the reactions from hundreds of people who want to weigh in on the level of importance that nationality warrants.

Maybe it’s because of the circles I ran in (pun intended) but there seems to be a common opinion among American and Western athletes: your place of birth should be the defining part of your athletic allegiance. After that, this prevalent thought seems to say, a “transfer of allegiance” (as the IAAF calls it) should be more difficult than it already is. It seems that the IAAF agrees with this thinking. Earlier this month, the IAAF announced a full freeze on all transfers of allegiance. Apparently the issue is so urgent and the system so abused, that IAAF President Sebastian Coe announced the formation of a working group to study the issue and propose new rules for a transfer of allegiance.

At the IAAF council meeting, Coe went on to say, “It has become abundantly clear with regular multiple transfers of athletes especially from Africa that the present rules are no longer fit for purpose. Athletics, which at its highest levels of competition is a championship sport based upon national teams, is particularly vulnerable in this respect. Furthermore, the present rules do not offer the protections necessary to the individual athletes involved and are open to abuse.”

Coe’s presidency that started in August 2015 has been beleaguered with accusations of corruption and gross incompetence. So excuse me if I hesitate to believe that Coe’s announcement is anything but an attempt to allay mounting pressures. That aside, I firmly believe that this move is cheap, short-sighted and reinforces an ideology that brings out our worst as a society.

At its foundation, sport is about bringing culture together.

Yes, the Olympics and World Championships put individuals on the line with snazzy uniforms emblazoned with “USA” or “Kenya” or “Qatar”, send them off to avoid tripping for 11 laps, and then a really hard kick for 600 meters. Beyond that, “Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Those eloquent words aren’t mine. Those come from the Fundamental Principles in the Olympic Charter. Actually the first principle.

So Coe’s belief that sport is more nationalistic than anything else is laughably false. Maybe television ratings are better served by narratives of USA vs. Russia, or Kenya vs. Ethiopia. Maybe a runner is more likely to be sponsored in the U.S. than in Greece. But ask any athlete that’s been to a championship that brings together numerous nations and they’ll tell you that the best part isn’t hanging out with their U.S. or Canadian teammates. They’ll tell you that the best part is going out with all the other athletes after the meet, or attending opening ceremonies, or being part of the closing ones. The unity of athletes from all walks of life, regardless of background, is what makes the athletic experience richer for the athlete and in turn, richer for the fans. And the wise writers of the Olympic charter made sure to mention that blending of sport, with culture.

Beyond the Olympic Charter, the fundamentals of Olympism and the richness of cultural exchange, there is a larger argument to be made for freeing us from the nationalistic constraints that Coe advocates for. In today’s highly globalized world you can stream a Bollywood movie on Netflix, pick an Ethiopian restaurant from any D.C. street corner, or even read the latest post on this website from Singapore (apparently there are 37 of you). It is undeniable that, in the post World War II order, the world has became a much more global society. Then the internet showed up and borders just started collapsing. I don’t have the space to debate it now, but I think it’s pretty clear that globalization has made the world, and especially the United States, a better place. It has enriched our country with more culture, new ideas, and best of all, it has allowed my parents to immigrate here.

But now, there’s a new movement taking hold across our country. One that is firmly rooted in recalling a past America. One that advocates for an America, by Americans, for Americans. “American” seems to have evolved into a definition that many are uncomfortable with. Some would argue that an “American” is someone born in the states, raised in the states and is a god-fearing Christian. But Americans have pushed back at this narrative. Hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets and crowding airports to protest the ban as fundamentally un-American. Thousands protesting the building of a wall. Sanctuary cities and states popping up across the country to provide a safe haven for millions of immigrants. Our country is firmly engulfed in a raging debate as to what it means to be “American.”

The following two maps show Allegiance Transfers from 2012-2016, as published by the IAAF. The first map shows exports of athletes from each respective country, and the second map shows imports of athletes for the annotated country. If you are reading on a mobile device and would like to view in full-screen, click the links before each map.


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Considering more American track athletes have transferred allegiance than any other nation’s athletes over the course of the last four years, it seems a little bit hypocritical for the track community to advocate for a freezing of transfers of allegiance. American athletes have been the biggest benefactors of the current system — not African athletes as Seb Coe claims. But more so than that, American athletics is dominated by the stories of athletes that became American citizens, represented our countries, and had amazing stories to share. Lopez Lomong as a refugee from Sudan. Hassan Mead from Somalia. Mo Ahmed winning a national championship as a Somali Canadian in Wisconsin. Bernard Lagat, American distance legend, is from Kenya. All beautiful stories, symbolically representative of what it has meant to be American. Athletics can play a small role in this culture war, and rather than closing our borders and freezing the rich exchange of culture, let’s allow it to flourish.