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China’s so insecure they’re stealing Olympians from across the world

InterContinental Beijing. (International Olympic Committee Media/Released)
February 15, 2022

As China hosts the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, it’s staying quiet to the fact that its own athletes have little to no connection to the country. China is so desperate to win medals, and seemingly so insecure about its ability to do so, that it stole Olympic athletes from foreign nations to fill its roster.

As USA Today reported Thursday, 17 of the 22 players that took to the ice for the Chinese national hockey team were either born or raised in the United States or Canada. China has also recruited international athletes for other Olympic events, raising questions about both China’s rules barring dual citizenship as well as Olympic rules of competition.

The effort to recruit outside talent for its hockey team appears to have begun about three years ago. International Ice Hockey Federation bylaws state that a player can represent a country in the Olympics if they’ve lived in that country for two years and played for the national team. To get around this rule, China formed the Kunlun Red Star, an ice hockey club that joined Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League in the 2016-2017 season and has essentially served as China’s national team.

In around 2019, the Kunlun Red Star began recruiting many international players, including Jake Chelios.

Chelios, who was born in Michigan, told USA Today that a chance to play in the Olympics wasn’t his motivation “but they did tell me about the Olympics in the pitch.”

Chelios took the deal and joined the Kunlun Red Star.

“When you get the pitch [to play for China in the Olympics], it’s three years away, you’re like, ‘Okay, it would be a great added bonus for sure,” Chelios said. “Next couple years went by, it kind of got a little more realistic.”

Last summer, Chelios said he got another call last summer, this time informing him that he was on the Chinese Olympic team’s roster.

China goaltender Jeremy Smith, who was also born in Michigan and who played for Team USA at the 2008 World Junior Championships was similarly recruited to the Chinese Olympic team.

“This is sport. This is hockey. I’m here to represent China. When I’m in China, I’m Chinese. I’m supported by the Chinese. I’m truly thankful for that,” Smith said. “When I go to America, I’m American. I’m building bridges for younger generations from hockey, to inspire.”

China’s recruitment of outside talent goes beyond its men’s hockey team. The country has carried on a recruitment effort, referred to as the “Morning Road” program, with the aim of gathering top athletic talent from around the world to represent China as it hosts the Olympics.

Sow Keat Tok, a China researcher at the University of Melbourne, told ABC News Australia, “China is not a powerful nation in winter sports. As the host country, it looked for talent from all over the world to save its face.”

Among its 2022 Olympic roster, China also successfully recruited American-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu and American-born figure skater Zhu Yi to compete for their Olympic teams.

Gu was born in San Francisco, Calif. to a Chinese mother and an American father. She competed for the U.S. until June 2019 after the International Ski Federation granted her a change of nation to China.

Yi was similarly born in California to Chinese immigrant parents. In September 2018, Inside The Games reported Yi joined the Chinese team, with an eye towards representing the host country at the 2022 Olympics.

Gu and Yi’s decisions to compete for China have raised questions about their citizenship. China does not allow dual citizenship, at least according to its written laws, but both Gu and Yi have avoided questions about their citizenship throughout the lead-up to the games.

According to Radio Free Asia, Yi has told reporters, “When I’m in the U.S., I’m American, and when I’m in China, I’m Chinese.” That answer may not sufficiently resolve the questions about her citizenship.

Jeanne Huang, an international law expert at the University of Sydney, told ABC Australia it was “impossible” for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and China to provide exemptions to the citizenship requirement.

“The Olympic Charter Rule 41 is very clear, which requires the athletes to have the citizenship for representing a country,” Huang said. “China’s law on citizenship, it’s very strict. It clearly says it does not recognise dual citizenship.”

Rule 41 states, “Any competitor in the Olympic Games must be a national of the country of the National Olympic Committee which is entering such competitor.”

A bylaw to the rule states, “A competitor who is a national of two or more countries at the same time may represent either one of them.”

The charter does allow returning Olympic athletes to compete for a different country than they competed for before if they obtain a new nationality and meet certain time criteria, including time periods.

Under current Chinese laws and IOC rules, China could have granted Chinese citizenship to athletes like Gu and Yi while forcing them to renounce their American citizenship, or it could have granted an unspoken exemption to allow their dual citizenship, but it likely could not allow non-Chinese citizens to compete in many cases.

Heidi Grappendorf, an expert in sports management at Western Carolina University, told ABC Australia that China’s ambiguity about the citizenship of its athletes is a “political game” between the IOC rules and its own laws.

“[China’s] lack of cooperation and refusal to provide accurate information, along with the IOC’s deafening silence and indifference on the issue is troubling,” Grappendorf said. “I would posture with the already tumultuous fact that the games are being held in a country with alleged massive civil rights violations, as well as the political nature and icy relations of China and the US, that the IOC may be actively choosing to remain silent to avoid fuelling any further controversy.”