Picking winners: citizenship and the Olympics
If you were born and raised in a country like Canada, chances are you don't wake up every morning and celebrate your luck. Citizenship is something we tend to take for granted, unless we had to fight for it, relocate for it, spend years pursuing it, or prove ourselves in other ways in order to obtain it. And that's why it's so fascinating to Ayelet Shachar, Canada Research Chair in Citizenship and Multiculturalism, and professor of law, political science and global affairs.
Shachar, born and bred in Israel, earned her doctorate at Yale. She and her husband, Prof. Ran Hirschl, then came to the University of Toronto, where they gained their Canadian citizenship the traditional way—living, working, creating a home, and forging an enduring connection with their new community. It was a seminal experience for Shachar, whose research route has been carved in its wake.
"I think precisely because I didn't take citizenship for granted, because I had gone through the process of immigration and naturalization, I became much more aware of how difficult it might be to acquire, how precious citizenship is, and how lucky people are to have it as a natural born right," she says.
Shachar took on the issue of citizenship by birth in her 2009 award-winning book, The Birthright Lottery: Citizenship and Global Inequality (Harvard University Press). Now, she's turned her attention to the touchy concept of citizenship as a recruitment tool, and its increasing use and abuse in the worldwide hunt for triumph. Setting her sights on the Olympic Games, Shachar argues passports are becoming a powerful form of international currency. Elite athletes who have no real ties or connections to the countries that covet them are being wooed and enticed—offered the precious prize of citizenship in exchange for a whiff of gold.
"There's something deeply ironic about the notion of saying 'We grant you citizenship precisely because we care about our nation's position in the world,' even if you have not actually complied with what is typically required of someone applying for citizenship," she says.
Shachar offers several striking examples of this phenomenon, as part of an extensive article she published in the Yale Law Journal last year. In "Picking Winners: Olympic Citizenship and the Global Race for Talent,” she outlines the egregious case of an Ethiopian runner, who says she was rejected three times by her home country's team due to her Christian religious affiliation. The runner was ultimately hooked by Bahrain and won gold on the world track stage in 2007 and 2009. She has since said she is supported by Bahrain’s government "morally and financially" despite hardly having lived there. Shachar also tells the tale of the two "Canadian" hockey teams at the 2006 Turin Olympics. One was actually Italy's team, but featured at least nine Canadian players, some of whom had scant previous ties to the host country.
“These players had strong ties to Canada, but because Italy needed players for its national team, they were selected over native-born Italians to represent Italy as its citizens, ”she says.
In another case, a Canadian-born ice-dancing champion obtained her U.S. citizenship through a special bill signed by former president George W. Bush, less than two months before the Turin games opened. The skater, Tanith Belbin, had been living in the U.S. and representing it at other international events, but she couldn't skate for the Americans at the Olympics without the U.S. passport.
And that's what makes the Olympics stand out, Shachar says. It's one of the few entities that holds citizenship as an absolute prerequisite to participation, and the ultimate example of what Shachar sees as a striking shift in the meaning of citizenship itself. From an ideal whose essence traditionally implied membership, social attachment and a sense of community, the concept is evolving into a much more strategic and opportunistic transaction between national governments and human capital.
"When you think of this notion of people being parachuted, or really fast-tracked into membership without having these other components," she says, "that traditional ideal becomes very tricky."
The issue has been brewing for decades, with glory-hungry countries poaching each other's highly talented citizens over everything from scientific, academic and intellectual prowess to Oscar-winning acting excellence. Shachar's captivation with the Olympics was born out of a broader study of changing immigration patterns involving highly skilled migrants. Even as many countries are tightening their immigration requirements and making it more difficult for refugees and family members to gain residency, they are finding more ways to bring in migrants who might enhance their standing on the world stage, or otherwise contribute to their long-term prosperity.
Often, it's a wealthier country raiding a relatively disadvantaged nation, and that's a big concern for immigration rights advocates, such as prominent Canadian lawyer Barbara Jackman, LLB 1976.
"I am uncomfortable with the concept because I think it's not fair," she says. "It may be fair to the individual who's being parachuted in because that person is going to get opportunities and advantages they may not get in their home country. But it's not fair to anybody else."
Jackman has practiced immigration and refugee law for more than three decades, arguing a number of Charter of Rights cases before the Supreme Court of Canada. Tilting the balance in favour of those with special talents, she argues, is unjust at almost every level.
"It's not fair to the country they're coming into, the country they've left, or the other athletes in the country they are coming into, who've worked hard to get to the top, and who might be displaced as a result," Jackman says.
That's one side of the argument. The other involves that crucial shift identified by Schachar, and what makes an immigrant desirable to a country in the first place. Every year, more than half of the 250,000 immigrants Canada accepts are selected based on their skills and education, and how they might contribute to the country's long-term economic needs and growth. The other half is made up of humanitarian and family reunification cases. Like many other countries, Canada reserves a special spot for the super-skilled: immigrants with "extraordinary talent," whose residency requirements are sometimes shortened and who are granted citizenship on a highly expedited basis. The government does not publish the data for that segment, so the number of cases expedited in any given year is not clear.
Shachar says that elite group is relatively small, but overall, the immigration numbers are shifting in a troubling way.
"The trend in the last few years has been to shrink down the refugee category and expand other categories," she notes. "I personally think that's not the ideal balance. Canada has multiple commitments to humanitarianism and family reunification, in addition to its commitment to economic migrants."