The Olympics are a global showcase of the world’s best athletes, and in recent years the Games have steadily become more inclusionary in service of that ideal. It has become increasingly common, for example, for Olympians to hold citizenship in and represent countries other than the ones they were born in. There are any number of reasons athletes adopt new homelands, but the overall effect is that more athletes and nations get to realize their Olympic dreams, while the makeup of the Games better reflects the increasingly globalized world we live in.
As globally-focused mobility experts, we at CapRelo applaud this trend, and are examining how it will be represented at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. With that in mind, we decided to do a little research of our own into the upcoming Winter Games to see who these athletes are, where they come from, where they’re relocating to, and much more. Check out our findings below!
There are nearly 3,000 athletes set to compete at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, and we did our best to find out where each and every one of them was born. We started with the official rosters announced by the nearly 90 participating Olympic Committees that were available by the start of February.
Where possible, CapRelo used official Olympic Committee websites to verify birthplaces, and combined that data with official websites of various sports’ governing bodies, news outlets, and other credible sources to fill in the gaps. These statistics are based on the rosters announced the day of the official cutoff date, January 29.
One of the things that jumped out at us was the sheer number of American-born athletes competing under different flags: thirty-seven in all, far outpacing the second and third place finishers in Canada and Russia. That these three countries led in this category isn’t terribly surprising, however, as they all feature large populations and have climates and geography that is perfect for producing Winter Olympians. The competition to make the official Olympic squads for these countries is incredibly tough, making it very appealing for some athletes to look elsewhere to reach the biggest stage in their respective sports.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of non-native athletes is unquestionably the South Korean hosts. In an effort to give their home fans more athletes to root for and increase their chances at winning some coveted medals, South Korea naturalized 18 athletes in the run-up to 2018, including some with previous Olympic experience for their nations of origin. These naturalized Koreans will be most prominent when it comes to the South Korean men’s ice hockey team, which we’ll give some more in-depth coverage to later.
Speaking of America losing athletes and South Korea gaining them, four of those 18 naturalized athletes for the hosts hail from the USA, two ice dancers and one player each for the Korean men’s and women’s ice hockey teams. The only nation with more American-born athletes competing (excluding the USA, naturally) is the USA’s neighbors to the north, as Canada counts six such athletes among their Olympic contingent.
One of the biggest surprises we found was when we really dug into the sports that featured the most non-native competitors. We assumed figure skating would feature the most non-native athletes competing in Pyeongchang, and while that sport did come in strong with 26 athletes, alpine skiing was the big winner in this category, featuring 32 competitors!
Olympic ice hockey teams are allowed to have rosters consisting of 22 skaters and 3 goalies, for a total of 25 athletes each. As the host country, South Korea was granted an automatic place in the hockey competitions, something they have known about since they were announced as the winning bid by the IOC in July 2011. With an eye towards improving their chances in one of the most popular of all Winter Olympic sports, the South Koreans turned to North America to bolster their ice hockey roster. As a result, 7 of their 25 players hail from Canada or the USA, over 25% of their total roster! These North Americans have spent the past several years playing professionally in Korea while representing the South Korean national team, and they will be crucial to the host nation’s competitiveness on the rink.
Lest anyone get the idea that all athletes who switch nationalities for the Olympics only do so because they aren’t skilled enough to make the teams from their birth countries, it is important to note that a number of athletes competing in 2018 will be doing so having already taken home past Olympic medals. This includes more than a few gold medalists. Russian-born Slovakian Anastasiya Kuzmina is one of the world’s best biathletes, counting 2 golds and a silver medal to her name already. USA native Vic Wild will be defending both gold medals he won for Russia in 2014. And Ukrainian-born Belarusian Anton Kushnir scored higher than any athlete in history to win the gold in men’s aerial skiing four years ago.
For some countries there would be no Olympic representation were it not for non-native born athletes. A dozen different nations are represented in Pyeongchang exclusively by competitors born elsewhere, including a historic contingent of Nigerian women who will be the first ever Olympic bobsled team from Africa!
The Nigerian women are historic for a number of reasons, as they are also the first ever Winter Olympians from the African nation, making them one of three different Olympic contingents composed entirely of foreign-born athletes making their nation’s Olympic debuts. Joining in that distinction are Kosovo and Eritrea. CapRelo also found it interesting that the makeup of non-foreign athletes in South Korea is set to be extremely diverse, as even though the average age of competitors is 26.6 years old, the overall pool of foreign-born athletes runs the gamut of ages from 16 all the way to 43.
When you tune in to the Winter Games this month, keep your eyes and ears out for the stories of these incredible athletes and the lengths they’ve gone to reach their Olympic goals. Consider just how impressively globalized our world has become, even when it comes to sports. We know we sure will!