There’s little doubt at this point that the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi will be the biggest in history. Not only will Sochi cost more than every other Winter Olympics combined, it will have the most medals and the most participating countries in history.
A record 88 countries will be sending athletes this year, seven of which have never participated before. These Winter Olympic newcomers include Dominica, Malta, Paraguay, East Timor, Togo, Tonga and Zimbabwe.
All of these countries are either tropical or sub-tropical, and they’re not alone. A total of 15 countries in tropical latitudes and several more where there’s no such thing as winter will be competing in winter sports on the international stage. Which raises the question: how?
In most cases, the answer is simply that the athletes don’t live in the countries they represent.
Per IOC rules, any member of an Olympic delegation must be a national of that delegation’s country. But while there are restrictions about switching countries for the sake of competition (you can’t have represented your former country in the last three years), generally speaking, this opens up the field to a nation’s diaspora: those born abroad with inherited citizenship; those born in a country and raised abroad; those who move abroad to train.
Take Zimbabwe’s alpine skier Luke Steyn for example. Things start to make a lot more sense once you realize that Steyn, the country’s sole representative in the Winter Olympics, moved to Switzerland when he was a toddler.
And this says nothing of athletes who gain citizenship in less competitive countries to further their—or their adopted country’s—Olympic chances. The tiny West African country of Togo offered citizenship to Italian skier Alessia Afi Dipol to the benefit of both parties: Dipol doesn’t have to fight for a spot on the Italian team, and snowless Togo gets a skier.
But while there is certainly some rule bending going on (some would say globalization), this doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of warm countries like Jamaica, which have built Olympic-level programs against the odds. The members of its bobsled team, Winston Watts and Marvin Dixon are unequivocally Jamaican, and have had to hustle for every bit of funding to make their Olympic dreams come true.
Likewise, athletes such as Pan-To Barton Lui of Hong Kong and Michael Christian Martinez of the Philippines took up their sports in their home countries and trained to an Olympic level despite a lack of local infrastructure.
Of course, both now train abroad.