How did a South Korean Olympic speed skater end up skating for Russia?


Viktor Ahn, front, of Russia competes in the men's 1500m final during the ISU Short Track World Cup speed skating competition in Shanghai on December 8, 2012. Ahn won the gold medal.


Carlos Barria/Reuters

Imagine if Kobe Bryant decided to go back to the Olympics, but instead of representing the US, he played hoops for Italy.

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That'd be weird.

But that is kind of what's happening now in Sochi, with Korean speed skater Ahn Hyun-Soo. He just won a bronze medal at the Games. But he didn’t win for his home country of South Korea. He's representing Russia now, as Viktor Ahn.

Which makes him a so-called "passport Olympian."

That's a phrase I learned from Jim Caple, a senior writer for ESPN who is covering the games in Russia. He says passport Olympians can be found at the Summer Olympics, too, but they're easier to notice at the Winter Games.

“You hear, ‘Oh, there’s somebody from the Virgin Islands who’s a skier?’ And you think, ‘Wow.’ That gets your attention,” he says. The US Virgin Islands has two athletes competing in Sochi, both in skiing events.

So what are the International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules for athletes with dual nationalities? Can you turn that smidgen of, say, Honduran ancestry into curling gold?

Caple says it depends on the sport.

For example, some sports don’t allow an athlete to change countries if they already competed in an Olympics for a particular nation. Other events, like speed skating, don’t have that rule. It’s also a matter of ancestry. Are your parents or grandparents from a particular country? If so, you’ve got a shot.

It all comes down to the country being okay with you participating under its flag. If the country is cool with it — more often than not, you’re in.

That’s how Ahn started skating for Russia. But he’s an outlier among the passport Olympians. Most don’t medal. Among passport Olympians, the opening and closing ceremonies are one of the few times they’ll even be on television or in the news — unless, of course, you dress up in a skin-tight Mariachi suit.

For the moment, everyone seems to be OK with some countries turning to other countries' athletes to help fill out their Olympic rosters. But Caple thinks that could change if money comes into play. If countries start to bid for competitors on the open market, he thinks the IOC will crack down on it.

But Caple says, usually, passport Olympians are just athletes trying to fulfill an Olympic dream with the help of countries trying to do the same.

“Nobody loses, everybody wins,” he says. “Although, they probably don’t win a medal.”