Sep 16, 2020

Examination Of The Principles And Procedures For Nationality Swapping Under The Olympic Charter | F. E. OROK (Esq)


          International sports law has seen several developments and changes in the last decade, one of such is the radical change in the Athlete nationality regime and the remodelling of the international and municipal concepts of citizenship.

          As the world is fast becoming a global village due to the strong influence of globalization, the stringiest requirement for citizenship and nationality has been relaxed by various nations in the alarming race to secure top class athletes or seek dominance in certain sports.  

In the light of this, athletes have been seen to throw nationality and patriotism to the wind in an emerging world of marketization of citizenship. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) have also taken steps to regulate and control this growing tide. In a fair attempt to regulate same, several legislations and rules have been made and agreed upon to curb and set a standard for nationality swapping.

          This paper shall examine the principles governing nationality swapping at the Olympic Games.   





          According to the European Convention on Nationality (1997), nationality can be defined as ‘the legal bond between a person and a state’[1]. Furthermore, the definition does not indicate the person’s ethnic origin that is ones nationality is nowhere connected to one’s ethnic affiliation or background.

          Although National/domestic laws are provided to regulate acquisition of nationality status by various states[2], International Federations (IF’s) also make provision for attainment of nationality status.

          In international law, citizenship is a reference to the general nationality of a state acquired by one under the various citizenship laws of a state. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Guarantees the right to swap (change) his/her nationality without deprivation on any grounds.[3] It is now no gain saying that the right to swap (change) nationality is one provided for and protected by International conventions/treaties.



          The issue of nationality under the Olympic Charter is regulated by Rule 41 of the Charter. It is a fundamental principle that for an athlete to participate/compete at the games such an athlete must be a national of the country of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) which is entering such competitor.[4] Any dispute arising from the nationality of a competitor at the games relating to the athlete’s state of nationality is resolved by the international Olympic committee (IOC) Executive Board.[5]

          Due to globalization, many athletes are very much eligible to represent more than one country. Example, Yamile Aldama, a world class triple jumper, has been a beneficiary of the fluidity in nationality at the games which has seen her represent three different countries i.e Cuba at the 2000 games in Sydney, Sudan at the Athens 2004 games and Britain at the London 2012 games. This dynamic is recognised by the charter in Bye-law to Rule 41 (1). But it goes further to the state and specify the conditionality’s for nationality swapping.

          The charter provides that where an athlete (competitor) is a national of two or more countries at the same time, he (the competitor) may represent either one of them, as he (the competitor) may elect. Where such an athlete (the competitor) has opted to represent one country in the Games (Olympics) or in a continental or regional or world championship (IAAF World Championship for example) recognised by the relevant International Federation (IF) he may not represented another country unless he meets the following requirements:

i)                  Three years has passed since the competitor last represented his former country. Note that this period may be reduced or even cancelled with the agreement of the NOC and IF concerned, by the IOC Executive Board.

ii)                The competitor must first change or acquire a new nationality subject to the nationality laws of the new state.[6]

If the athlete (the competitor) can fulfil the above stated requirements then he can be eligible to represent his new nation at the games.

     Another principle worth noting is the status of ‘Stateless Athletes’.  Stateless may be as a result of a refugee status by an athlete where he fled his country of birth and domicile in another country. In this situation, if the athlete meets the three year waiting period and can prove he (the competitor) had severed his ties to his country of birth.

     Also, where an athlete is from a state with no NOC, such an athlete is not deemed as ‘stateless athletes’, such athlete will be regarded as an ‘independent athlete’. The Charter of the Games provides that an athlete must be sponsored by a country’s NOC. This situation arose with Guor Mamal, a South Sudanese Marathon runner at the 2012 London Games, he wanted to join the national team of the United States, his domicile, but he was not a United States citizen and his country of birth, South Sudan had no NOC, as South Sudan was in its first year of independence. 




In summary, the question of nationality amongst athletes at the games is a fluid one, which gives a power to bigger, richer and well established countries to offer better welfare and financial packages to athletes to entice them to represent them at the games. This has served countries with rich resources but not much talent pool to draw from, thereby allowing them to deep into the global athlete market to window shop for willing athletes who are ready to swap nationality for better working and competing conditions.

     On the other hand, the IOC is also encouraged to make alterations to the procedure for nationality swap, i.e the waiting years as this is not really important as the consensual agreement between the athlete, adopting country and the IF concerned is of utmost importance.   

 F. E. OROK (Esq)

[1] Article 2(a)

[2] The Nigerian Sports Industry Policy Draft (see Article 5 (1) (3) )

[3] Article 15

[4] Rule 41 (1) of the Olympic Charter

[5] Rule 41 (2)

[6] Rule 41 Bye-Law (ii) of the Olympic Charter