Olympic Citizen

by Casey Barrett

Two Passports, One Dream…

Where are you from?

A simple question, often the first you’re asked as you’re getting to know someone. It’s the fastest way a stranger can zero in on you, start to form your shape in his head. Once you’ve got that information, you can zoom forth with the bold strokes figured out. Always hated that question.

Mostly because I don’t have a good answer. When smiling strangers ask me that question, I stammer and generally come off sketchy as hell. “I was, uh, born in Montreal, but um, grew up around the States.” Pause. I add: “But I’ve been in New York a long time.” Cue uncomfortably smiling stranger to change the subject.

This should not be a difficult question, but it’s become one for me because of the Olympics. It’s not a complicated story:

I was born in Montreal, Canada, spent my first few years there, American expat parents moved back, decided to raise the family in the States. Became a swimmer. Got good enough to think Olympics. In the lead up to the Games, I faced facts: In the country where I was raised and educated, I was the 5th best in the country in my best event. In the country of my birth, I was the 2nd best. I played the odds, and went with country I hadn’t lived in since I was a kid. Patriotic pride did not weigh into this decision, on either side. Olympic ambition did.

I want to be an Olympian. More than I want to be an American. More than I want to be a Canadian. I pledge more allegiance to a flag of five interlinked rings. More than anything else, I want to be a part of that moveable four-year feast of competitive utopia. I’m not alone in this. In fact, I’m a part of a unique population of Olympic nation hoppers.

We’re those dual citizens who make pragmatic choices of nationality in order to pursue a dream that can’t be contained by borders.

First, a distinction: This does not include athletes whose citizenship was purchased by a Middle East nation (Say, Qatar), competitors who sell their passports and agree to compete for a small rich nation interested in using the Olympics as a marketing campaign, using foreign athletes as well paid pawns in a misguided game. We’re not that cynical.

But we are opportunists. That part’s impossible to deny. Due to circumstances of family and birth, we have straddled borders of citizenship and self-identity all our lives. With more than one passport to choose from, we can make athletic career choices that others can’t. Is that fair? Is it fair to be born and raised by the ocean in Southern California, within ten miles of a dozen world-class coaches? At a certain point, no matter how hard you might have worked, you begin to realize the incredible amount of luck involved. Sure, there’s insane sacrifice and endless training, but at its root, your Olympic potential came down to your parents and your environment, well before you showed even a glimmer of talent in your first summer league successes.

You either seized those opportunities, or you didn’t.

This mindset does not always sit well with those whose notions of nationality are set in stone. For these masses, nationality is the definition of identity itself. Forget where their ancestors came from way back when, they are Americans first, last, and always. Or Chinese, or German, or Australian. Who you are means where you are from, right?

A few months before my own Olympic Trials, back in the winter of 1995, I was living with a proud American Olympian, a guy who would subsequently go on to join the Marines. He thought I was borderline traitorous. I once overheard him drunkenly tell a buddy that “Casey can’t be Canadian. He barely watches hockey!” Half-bright stereotypes aside, it wasn’t the only time I heard such sentiments.

On the pool deck at the Olympics in Atlanta, a friend from a small South American nation joked that I didn’t deserve to be there, since I “wasn’t really Canadian.” My imagined response: “Fuck you, you don’t appreciate this at all. If you did, you would have made it to a morning practice every once in awhile. Don’t talk to me about deserving anything.” My actual response: Nervous chuckle and a “whatever, dude.”

These might sound like old raw wounds that never healed. And maybe they are. But every four years in the spring time, those old memories resurface with every country’s Olympic Trials. There are always athletes out there, like me, who choose to represent one nation over another in pursuit of Olympic ambition. It’s never a comfortable choice. You hear whispers even when they’re not there. You become overly prideful of the country you chose, overly critical of the country you didn’t. This does not make you more of one and less of another; it’s just a knee-jerk effort to fit in.

There’s a common line you hear from first generation or multiracial folks when you ask them “what side” they identify with more. Invariably, they’ll say they feel more like one when they’re with the other. Meaning, a child of biracial parents (like say Tiger Woods) will probably say he feels more black when among Asians. And more Asian when among blacks. You’re always Other, always not quite from the same place as your peers. I can relate. When I visit Canada nowadays, I feel uncomfortably American. But when I’m among American swimmers, especially around the Olympics, I’m aggressively and proudly all Canadian. The truth is, neither flag feels like it fits quite right.

The Olympic flag, on the other hand? Isn’t that what it’s all about? A world united, linked together in common cause? That was Pierre de Coubertin’s ideal all along: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” That’s from the guy who founded these Modern Games… It’s a hard line to square with the unfortunate obsession on medal counts among the world’s superpowers.

But the Olympics have always walked a fine line between corruption and purity. On one hand, you have the rampant ugly nationalism, the cheating; on the other you have the Opening Ceremony, and the Olympic Village. I’ll embrace the latter, and deal with the former, even as the dark side sometimes threatens to overwhelm all those good Village vibes…

Speaking of villages, if you live in New York City long enough, and you realize you’re surrounded by folks who never quite felt comfortable with where they were from. Or at least never wanted it to define their identity… There’s solidarity in those shifting allegiances. We’re all here in pursuit of something personal and ambitious. We’re also a cab ride away from Ellis Island. Not too many better reminders in the world that your precious citizenship can be subject to change. New Yorkers have always known in their bones that where you’re from doesn’t mean much.

What counts is where you’re going.