By Kary Vannice
A pile of garbage bags sparked a very interesting (and very embarrassing) controversy for team Mexico at this year’s Olympics – a controversy that raised the question, are the Olympics really about patriotism and national pride or just another chance for athletes to compete and win worldwide fame?
How did something as mundane as a sack of trash lead to such a provocative question and spark a global debate? Well, to be fair, it was the contents of the bags that made headlines.
On July 29th, a female Mexican Olympic boxer posted a photo on her social media showing several sacks of trash thrown out by the Mexican softball team. The bags contained official Mexican Olympic team uniforms and training gear.
Along with the photo, she posted this quote:
“This uniform represents years of effort, sacrifice, and tears. All Mexican athletes yearn to wear it with dignity, and today the Mexican softball team sadly left it all in the garbage of the Olympic villages.”
This act of disrespect was made much worse because 14 of the 15 women competing for the Mexican Olympic softball team were born in the United States.
In fact, Mexico qualified for its first-ever Olympic softball appearance by recruiting American collegiate athletes of Mexican descent, a practice that is totally legal according to the International Olympic Committee, which requires that athletes be citizens or nationals of the country they compete for. Athletes with dual or multiple citizenship can choose which country they want to represent and declare a transfer of allegiance specifically and only for the Olympic games. When the games are over, they can go right back to competing professionally or collegiately in their home country.
Because each of the 200 countries that participated in the Tokyo Games has its own laws governing citizenship and residency, countries wanting a better chance at an Olympic medal can easily bend the rules by actively seeking athletes from other countries who have ancestral ties to the country.
The United States, which has more professional athletes than any other country, is a prime hunting ground for Olympic athletic talent. Only the best of the best qualify to compete on the US Olympic team, but many who don’t make the cut easily qualify to join the team of another country, where the talent pool isn’t so deep or over-crowded.
And that’s exactly what happened in the case of Mexico’s 2020 Olympic softball team, with all but one being born in the United States. This led one news outlet to publish an article titled “Mexico’s Olympic softball team is made in the USA.”
But what are the consequences of stacking a potentially winning team with players who are in it solely to compete and not to “bring home the gold”? How would the Mexican people have felt had the softball team won gold? Would they feel a sense of national pride knowing that 14 out of the 15 metals would go home to the United States and never touch down on Mexican soil? It’s very unlikely.
It also seems quite clear that the women themselves felt more allegiance to the Olympics than to Mexico, eventually admitting that they threw out the team jerseys given them by the Mexican Olympic Committee to make room for bed comforters and quilts from their rooms at Olympic Village. Essentially, they favored souvenirs with six colored rings on them over the uniforms that sported the Mexican flag.
In an official statement (after becoming an international sports scandal), a representative of the softball team said that it was simply a matter of “too much cargo.” Yet ESPN Mexico reported that sets of softball equipment, clothing from the opening ceremony, sneakers, and suitcases were also found in the garbage, begging the question, what’s it worth to represent a country that’s not your own in the greatest sports games on the planet? As it turns out, for some, not even the price of overweight luggage.
But to be fair, Mexico isn’t the only country taking advantage of the transfer of allegiance rule. In the last Olympics, nearly 200 athletes competed for countries they were not born in. Two athletes have even won medals for two different countries in the history of the games!
Each individual must, for themselves, weigh the balance of national pride vs. the chance to compete at all costs. But it’s a powerful statement that in 2016 the Olympic Committee formed the Refugee Olympic Team so that athletes who have been forcibly displaced from their home countries could still compete.
In this year’s Olympics, 29 athletes from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Congo, Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela competed for the Refugee Olympic Team in 12 events. They entered the Tokyo Olympic stadium under a united flag that represents refugees around the world, all 29 of them proving it’s not the flag you stand under, but solidarity that matters most.