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No, athletes can’t switch countries when they’re at the Olympic Games

It’s not uncommon for athletes with dual citizenship to switch which country they compete for, but that switch has to be made three years ahead of the Olympics.
Credit: AP
Gold medalist Eileen Gu of China celebrates during the medal ceremony for the women's freestyle skiing big air at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Several American-born athletes, most notably figure skater Zhu Yi and freestyle skier Eileen Gu, have made headlines recently for competing under the flag of other countries. Shortly after Zhu Yi made her first appearance on the ice in the Beijing Games, Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn tweeted, “If you went to the Olympics to represent America and decided to represent another nation once you arrived there, your citizenship should be revoked.”

Cawthorn’s tweet suggests that athletes are able to change the country they represent while at the Olympic Games, qualifying for one country and then switching to a new flag just before the start of competition, as opposed to switching countries before Olympic qualifiers start.

THE QUESTION

Are athletes allowed to switch countries when they’re at the Olympic Games?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, athletes cannot switch countries once they’re at the Olympic Games. Athletes with dual citizenship can, however, switch which country they compete for at the Olympics as long as they make the switch at competitions at least three years ahead of time.

WHAT WE FOUND

In the bylaws of Rule 41, the Olympic Charter allows an athlete with citizenship in two or more countries to compete for any of those countries. But once an athlete has chosen to compete for a country on the international stage, they must meet certain conditions before they can switch the country they represent in the Olympics.

The Olympic Charter describes three types of competitions beholden to this rule: the Olympic Games, regional or continental games recognized by the sport’s international rules, and regional or world championships recognized by the sport’s international rules. Once an athlete has competed under one country’s flag at any of these competitions, they cannot compete for another country in the Olympics for three years, unless the national Olympic committees of both countries involved in the switch agree to it.

So if an athlete competing in international competitions for the U.S. wanted to represent China in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, they could not compete in their event for the U.S. after Feb. 4, 2019. The athlete can announce their switch anytime as long as they follow the three-year rule for competitions.

But an athlete can’t just stop competing for three years and then announce they’re representing a different country as the Olympics begin. Olympic sports typically require athletes to compete in international events to qualify for the Olympics. Team USA says its selection committees in each Olympic sport use an athlete’s performance or a formula based directly on results from these competitions to choose their final teams.

In the case of figure skating, the sport in which Zhu Yi competes, the United States selected its athletes based on a series of competitions that took place in 2021. If Zhu went to the 2022 Winter Olympics representing America, she would’ve competed for the U.S. in events that took place in 2021, leaving her ineligible to compete for China once at the Olympics without Team USA’s approval.

But in reality, Zhu’s case isn’t even one of dual-citizenship — she no longer has American citizenship that can be revoked, like Cawthorn’s tweet says should happen. Zhu was an American citizen who won in the novice division of the 2018 United States figure skating championships before announcing in September 2018 she wanted to represent China at the Beijing Olympics. When she did, she gave up her American citizenship to comply with a Chinese law that does not recognize dual nationality for any Chinese national. 

Eileen Gu made the decision to represent China in June 2019. Although she announced her switch less than three years before the start of the 2022 Olympics, the International Ski Federation says the last competition she represented the U.S. in was Feb. 2, 2019, just over three years before Beijing’s Opening Ceremony.

But these two athletes aren’t the only ones who have switched the country they represent at this Olympic Games or previous Olympics. Ken Gusworthy, a freestyle skier who competed for Team USA in 2014 and 2018 and was well-known for adopting stray puppies at the 2014 Sochi  Olympics, announced on his Instagram in 2019 that he would compete for Great Britain in the 2022 Olympics. At the same time, he switched to a ski event he hadn’t represented the U.S. in for at least three years.

A few other examples of athletes who switched countries before previous Olympics include Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian, who competed for the U.S. bobsled team in 2014 and then the Jamaican bobsled team in 2018, and Carlijn Schoutens, who was a speed skater on the Dutch junior team before making her Olympic debut with the U.S. in 2018.

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