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  • Writer's pictureDani Bland

Nationality Requirements for Athletes: A Controversy

Updated: Feb 12

Each Olympic cycle, the controversy over whether athletes should be allowed to compete for a country where they are not from or do not live, resurfaces. Many wonder how athletes can just jump ship from one country to another. Can any athlete compete for any country they want? There is also debate as to whether switching nations should be allowed in the first place. Nationality requirements for Olympic athletes are enumerated in the Olympic Charter under Rule 41 [1].

Rule 41 states that “any competitor in the Olympic Games must be a national of the country of the NOC [National Olympic Committee] which is entering such competitor” [2]. Athletes with multiple citizenships can pick one of their nationalities to represent but once they have represented a nation, they must follow the rules under Bylaw 2 of Rule 41 if they want to represent a different country in the future [3]. This bylaw requires an athlete to wait three years after representing one country until they can represent another, unless both countries agree to waive the waiting period [4]. Rule 41 and its bylaws present the baseline nationality requirements for all Olympic athletes, however the charter allows the international federation for each sport to require stricter guidelines [5].

It is widely accepted and practiced that being a “national” under Rule 41 means being a citizen [6]. Citizenship requirements vary across the globe. There are countries where one must be born there in order to attain citizenship. There are countries where citizenship can be bought, and there are countries where one can be naturalized by other methods. There are yet others where a relative such as a grandparent being born there gives one a right to claim citizenship. Some countries allow citizens to maintain multiple citizenships and some do not. This means that in some cases, switching citizenships means giving up a citizenship [7]. Countries determine their own citizenship requirements and sporting bodies have no say in them.

Every Olympic sport has an international federation (IF). These federations may choose to impose additional nationality requirements on top of Rule 41 but many choose not to. Swimming (FINA), golf (IGF), and athletics (WAF, formerly IAAF) are three examples of sports whose governing bodies have chosen to simply follow Rule 41 [8] [9] [10]. Basketball (FIBA) imposes additional requirements [11]. In basketball, once an athlete is seventeen or older and represents a country, he/she cannot switch his/her allegiance [12]. Basketball players under the age of seventeen may switch allegiances if both countries are in agreement [13]. FIBA also stipulates that up to one player per team may be a citizen by naturalization after the age of sixteen [14]. This includes athletes who have had the right to citizenship since birth but did not claim it until after they turned sixteen [15]. Finally, FIBA requires players with multiple citizenships to send a declaration in writing notifying the body which country they are choosing to represent [16]. FIBA’s goal is to prevent foreigners from being transformed into locals. FIBA wants countries to be represented by their own countrymen.

The World Athletics Federation (WAF), the IF for athletics, is keeping a close watch on nationality concerns. For now, it has deemed Rule 41 and its bylaws sufficient. Unlike FIBA, the WAF’s main concern is not about whether national teams reflect their nation’s countrymen. Rather, they are concerned about the possibility of human trafficking that can occur due to the marketization of citizenship that can result from the ability to switch allegiances [16].

The WAF recognizes that there are many legitimate reasons to compete for a country other than one’s native country, and does not want to prevent people from seeking a better life or from marrying foreigners and settling down in foreign countries [17]. The governing body is not against that in the least. WAF is concerned about elite athletes, particularly in Africa, that are essentially being auctioned off to the highest bidding country [18]. It is this type of activity that the WAF seeks to prevent. Just last year, IAAF President (body has since been renamed WAF), Sebastian Coe, said that “You can’t have athletes being traded, it’s bordering on trafficking if you’re not careful” [19].

Currently, WAF feels that the three-year waiting period under Rule 41’s bylaws is sufficient because only athletes who truly desire to compete for a different country will be willing to endure it [20]. The bylaw provides a lane for people with strong desires to compete for another country to do so, while still effectively deterring against countries trafficking in elite athletes from lesser-developed countries. The WAF is happy with this balance but will continue monitoring nationality concerns [21].

Nationality is not a black and white issue. It is multi-faceted and complex by nature. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) ensures that the issue of nationality is handled with care. This is evident by the way the committee has purposely crafted the Olympic Charter. The charter provides a baseline for nationality requirements, but delegates further regulation powers to international federations for each sport.

Different sports view nationality through different lenses and thus seek different goals. In basketball, the lens is national pride and the goal is to have teams that are representative of a nation’s countrymen. In athletics, the lens is more individual based with a focus on human rights, and the goal is to ensure that athletes can compete representing a flag they have a strong connection to, while making sure their athletic talent is not exploited. While these visions differ, one is not any more right than the other. I think it is important to look to the vision of the particular sport and to the individual athlete’s reasoning for wanting to represent a certain country, before passing judgment on whether he/she should be able to or not.


[1] International Olympic Committee, Olympic Charter (September, 2019), Charter

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Matthew Impelli, As Naomi Osaka Gives Up US Citizenship to Play for Japan, Here Are Other Olympians That Have Competed for Different Countries, Newsweek (October 10, 2019),

[7] Id.

[8] FINA, Qualification System – Games of the XXXII Olympiad –Tokyo 2020: International Swimming Federation (FINA), (March 19, 2018),

[9] International Golf Federation, IGF Olympic Golf Regulations: Games of the XXXII Olympiad – Tokyo 2020, (June, 2019),

[10] James Ellingworth, Qatar Worlds Highlight Track’s Many Nationality Switches, Associated Press, (October 1, 2019),

[11] FIBA, Book 3—Players and Officials: Chapter 1: Eligibility and National Status of Players, FIBA,

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] James Ellingworth, Qatar Worlds Highlight Track’s Many Nationality Switches, Associated Press, (October 1, 2019),

[17] Peter Spiro, Eliminate Nationality Rules, The New York Times, (January 31, 2017),

[18] Id.

[19] James Ellingworth, Qatar Worlds Highlight Track’s Many Nationality Switches, Associated Press, (October 1, 2019),

[20] Id.

[21] Id.


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