The Summer Olympic games are about to get underway in Rio. We will hear stories of individual achievement that have come as a result of hard work and overcoming numerous obstacles. We will hear about controversy such as the Russian doping allegations and the athletes’ concerns over the sanitary conditions of some venues. We will hear about the competition between countries to take home the most medals. And once again, we will hear about the number of immigrants that are on various teams.
Foreign-born members of national Olympic teams are not a new phenomenon. Many countries have long relied on foreign-born athletes to field competitive teams, such as when arid and tropical countries have fielded winter Olympics teams made up exclusively of foreign born athletes.
The Olympics did not begin to track the number of foreign-born Olympians until the Summer 2004 games. The debates and discussions surrounding immigration, primarily in the UK and the US, have only served to highlight the topic.
Immigration is a debate that is destined to continue, most likely for a very long time. What is not debatable is the success and impact that immigrant athletes have had on the Olympics and the number of medals they have won for their adopted countries.
Mohamed “Mo” Farah
Mohamed “Mo” Farah at 33 is the most decorated person in British athletics history and holds seven world titles. Farah was born in Somalia and moved to west London when he was 8. Not only did he win two gold medals in one year he holds numerous world, British and European indoor and outdoor records.
Lopez Lomong is a runner for the US Olympic team. Lomong is one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys” who was brought to the US when he was 16 in order to escape the on-going civil war and life in a refugee camp. Lomong, who has had numerous notable results at the Olympics and other competitions but has yet to win an Olympic medal, was chosen by his teammates to carry the US flag during the Beijing opening ceremony. His teammates choose him because of his pride in becoming a US citizen shortly before the start of the games. Lomong said that competing in the Olympics was his “gift, to give back to this country that has given me a second chance.”
Leo Manzano became the first US medallist in the 1500 metres since Jim Ryun in 1968. Manzano is the son of an undocumented Mexican immigrant who was brought to the US by his parents when he was 4. Manzano set numerous high school and college records in Texas and earned his trip to compete in the Olympics in 2012. Manzano became a US citizen in 2004.
Cycling gold medalist Bradley Wiggins was born in Belgium to an English mother and Australian father. Wiggins began racing when he was 12 and has had a very successful career. In addition to his Olympic gold, Wiggins holds a number of prestigious world championships and records. He received a knighthood in 2013.
Other immigrants that have competed in the Olympics include Viktor Ahn for Russia; Laura Robinson, Laura Bechtolsheimer, and Robert Grabarz for the UK; and Sanya Richards-Ross, Danell Levya and Liezel Huber for the US.
According to researchers, immigration was a factor in more than a third of the 65 medals won by the British team in the London games, counting both foreign born competitors and those whose parents were immigrants. The London games were the most successful for Great Britain in more than a hundred years.
According to The American Immigration Council about 38 of the American athletes in London were immigrants. The number would have been substantially higher if the statistics counted the number of athletes who were born to immigrant parents.
Immigrants in the Olympics are not limited to competitors. Many gold medal coaches, especially for the US teams, are also immigrants.
The Olympic committee estimates that approximately 4% of those competing this summer in Rio are immigrants.
Sunder Katwala, a director for British think tank British Future summed up the Olympics by saying that British “athletes, selected by fierce meritocratic competition, offer an everyday snapshot of the Britain that we have become, just as the volunteers and the crowds did.”
That makeup and sentiment applies to a larger number of other countries as well as immigrant athletes compete alongside their natural born teammates to represent their countries and hopefully bring home the gold.