Seeing athletes as transnational migrants: the book that changed how I watch sport

In a recent column on politics, migration and the Olympics, Laurie Penny asked:

 The Games are supposed to showcase a spirit of internationalism and foster a sense of community that crosses borders. The important questions here are: what kind of community, and what kind of borders?

I’ve enjoyed watching sport since my mid-teens, well before I knew I was going to write or teach about nationalism, and I used ideas about sport as cultural performance in some of my research on popular music and identity in Croatia; for years, I’ve been used to thinking through those ideas as I watch, even though I’m not supposed to be ‘at work’. But reading Thomas F Carter’s book In Foreign Fields: the Politics and Experiences of Transnational Sport Migration (Pluto, 2011) last year changed the way I would start answering Penny’s question.

Recently, that question has been most publicly visible in the UK in the arguments about who is – or should be – eligible to belong to ‘Team GB’. The Daily Mail created a controversy over overseas-born British athletes, terming them ‘plastic Brits’, in spring 2012 when Tiffany Porter, who had represented the USA at junior level, was appointed team captain for the World Indoor Championships. The Daily Telegraph subsequently identified that 60 of this year’s 542 UK Olympians had been born abroad.

International sporting competitions depend on fixed notions of citizenship: only citizens of a state can represent it in international competition. The transitional periods imposed by some governing bodies, during which an athlete changing nationality cannot compete, suggest that sports administrators as well as spectators view the idea of changing one’s citizenship solely to be able to join a different team as illegitimate. We conceive of international teams as made up of the very best of their nation, that is, of the people who are ‘naturally’ there.

In the 21st century, even more than before, the framework for international representation in sport has failed to keep up with the way that people live their lives. Tiffany Porter is one of many competitors whose life circumstances have left them eligible to represent more than one country. Porter has held dual US/UK nationality since birth; other team members have qualified for UK citizenship by marrying a UK national or by fulfilling residency requirements in the UK.

Carter’s achievement in In Foreign Fields is to write about sports competitors as working transnational migrants – no more, no less. As workers, they negotiate (and sometimes evade) the immigration regimes of the states they move to and through. Their capacity to meet management demands for labour determines whether or not they are able to continue living in a foreign state; their family networks often benefit from the migrant member’s mobility, yet sometimes are endangered or even destroyed by a migrant’s decision to move.

From my twin points of view as an athletics spectator and a researcher who now also writes about mobility, seeing professional sport worked into a migration studies paradigm was a lens-shifting moment:

an anthropological approach to the study of transnational migrants and migrant labour has centred upon the contexts in which labourers navigate alien social landscapes that are no longer linked to a singular locale or contained within a nation-state, but have become transnational social orders within which people struggle to make lives for themselves. At times they are helped, while at others they are hindered, by the international movements of capital and the activities of states over which they have no control. This is as true for transnational sport migrants as it is for labourers in other industries. It just appears that sports migrants enjoy the perks of elite existence because of the coverage of celebrity sports stars in the media, a vision replicated in academic studies. (p. 11)

One case study in In Foreign Fields, of a sports professional with a particularly complicated migration trajectory, comes from the event I’ve followed most closely as a spectator. In my own consciousness she had figured as one of several adversaries of my favourite competitor in the event (by choosing to follow this other athlete, I’ve undoubtedly identified with her, although she isn’t from my own nation), before she vanished from visibility as a result of her problems transferring citizenship. Writing about her case, Carter observes:

the notion of dual citizenship simply does not exist for national or international governing bodies of global sport. […] For the IOC, IAAF and others, citizenship is mutually exclusive: one cannot be both Cuban and Sudanese. […] Díaz Roque’s use of citizenship as a form of capital enabled her to improve her own economic situation, albeit at the expense of sundering family ties. (p. 94–5)

More recently, Díaz Roque (Carter’s pseudonym for an elite competitor whom followers of the event may well still recognise) has achieved her long-term aim of acquiring UK citizenship through spousal reunion, and has been caught up in – and responded to – the tabloids’ ‘plastic Brits’ controversy. This competitor has been particularly hard hit by a representation framework that does not make space for the ambiguity of national belonging; even Tiffany Porter, who trained in the USA and whose CV may appear more straightforwardly that of an ‘import’, has a demonstrable personal and lifelong connection to the United Kingdom. As spectators, none of us know Porter well enough to know what part the UK has played, or might play in the future, in her life outside work. We just don’t know; nor would followers of Díaz Roque’s event have known the details of her private life if they hadn’t become public property through the media.

Porter and Díaz Roque are both part of transnational families: they can be seen to be connected to the nation they now represent through routes independent of their work. What seems to bother spectators most is the idea that a national team can ‘buy in’ success by recruiting people who have nothing to do with the nation.

For athletics fans, the extreme example of ‘buying a team’ is Qatar, which recruited long-distance runners from Kenya in 2003. Stephen Cherono and Albert Chepkurui both became Qatari citizens, changing their names to Saif Saeed Shaheen and Ahmad Hassan Abdullah and reportedly receiving up to $1 million.

Building a Qatari team this way appears to violate the idea that a sports team should be the optimal expression of national physical achievement. But where does this idea stop?

National sports federations with the required financial resources routinely hire foreign coaches and engineers, and send their athletes to training facilities abroad. No British track and field competitors will take part in the Olympic opening ceremony because they are still at a training camp in Portugal; UK Athletics’s head coach, Charles van Commennee, is Dutch. There is no expectation here – except perhaps when it comes to England football managers – that teams should be restricted to what is ‘authentically’ available in their home country. The discomfort is much greater when the person whose body performs the activity is perceived as not belonging than when the people who have helped to get that body into top condition are avowedly foreign.

The build-up to the London Olympics has seen critiques of the politics and economics of sport begin to spread out to a wider audience: this blogger, for instance, argues that Olympic branding and organisation are capable of making a broader public angry about commercial and security practices that only activists have been concerned with until now. Is there a potential for migration studies to use the Olympics as a bridge to public engagement in the same way, or are spectators in international sport too invested in imagining the nation as they already perceive it?


2 thoughts on “Seeing athletes as transnational migrants: the book that changed how I watch sport

  1. You know I disagree with your thoughts on Tiffany Porter, but we don’t need to go into that here (for anyone who’s not read and is interested, click the link on my name above). I do think it’s odd of Carter to have chosen such an obviously identifiable athlete to use in his profile, and to them give a pseudonym. I’m curious as to why he would ‘bother’ to do this, as I’m sure many people would know immediately who he’s talking about.

  2. This is very interesting. It brings to mind debates in the late apartheid period about cricket and rugby. (And an element of the film Muriel’s Wedding about marrying to enable citizenship for an athlete.) As someone who does not really follow sport closely but is aware of these types of issues on the periphery, I wonder if the Olympics is but a focus in a larger discourse that usually plays out in relation to football (which you mention), cricket, and rugby. The debates about the definition of “Yorkshireman” in cricket are interesting in this light, for example.

    I agree that this is a fascinating topic. I also suspect that though understanding athletes as workers is conceptually rich, I think there is also something contested about precisely that equivalence that influences this particular debate. Perhaps setting this in the context of the shift (in the ’80s?) from the Olympics as an amateur competition to allowing professionals to compete would help here. It certainly raises all kinds of questions about what counts as “amateur” in sport that probably intersect with these debates about who properly represents the nation.

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