This EUR-researcher studies Olympic migration: ‘It’s part of a broader discussion about who does and doesn’t belong’

The Olympics are in full swing and we’re all cheering for our national heroes. But what does that even mean, ‘national hero’? Born here? Parents born here? Moved here? Is someone truly part of ‘us’ if he/she is simply here because it improves their chance of winning? Is Dutch-born speed skater Ted-Jan Bloemen’s victory, who won gold during the 10,000 metres competing for Canada, rightfully ours as well? For his PhD project, Joost Jansen (EGSHfocuses on mapping patterns of Olympic migration and nationality changes. His research aims to understand how national identity is discursively constructed within the context of the Olympics. 

Can you tell us something about your research?

‘People often ask me why I chose to research sports, rather than something ‘useful’, like poverty. And I often jokingly answer: I couldn’t care less about sports. To me, it’s a great, well-documented case that reflects much broader issues in society related to migration, globalisation and citizenship.

To be more specific, the number of Olympic athletes representing countries in which they weren’t born poses many questions. Can these people truly represent another country? How did they manage to obtain citizenship with such ease? Are people’s talents simply ‘bought’ in return for a passport? Are nations competing to reel in the talent? This is all part of a broader discussion about who does and who doesn’t belong to a certain nation in a globalising world. And I take part in that discussion by looking specifically at migrant athletes.’

What have you discovered so far?

‘I’ve researched whether there’s truth to the idea that Olympic contestants have become more migratory and that more athletes are representing countries in which they weren’t born, as is often believed. I discovered that for the last 60 years the number has been stable. What’s more, the number reflects global patterns of migration. Take Ted-Jan Bloemen, for example. His father was born in Canada and holds dual Dutch-Canadian citizenship. As in many countries, nationality in Canada is organized through bloodline, so Ted-Jan Bloemen is entitled to Canadian citizenship. Yes, I’ll admit it’s an instrumental move – in the Netherlands he stood little chance of going to the Olympics – but it’s the result of broader historical and legal developments; of the way that migration and citizenship are regulated.

This is the case for most Olympic athletes representing other countries then their ‘own’. In the 2006 Olympics, the entire Italian ice hockey team consisted of Canadians who were third-generation Italian at best. It rarely happens that a nation actually trades a passport for talent without any historical connection.’

‘What has changed, however, is that migration is now considered a problematic subject, and the way we deal with it these days has nationalist overtones. Sentiment is much more important to us than actual figures. While the Olympics become more and more globalized, the nationalist sentiment has also increased.’

To me, sports reflect much broader issues in society related to migration, globalisation and citizenship

For his PhD project, Joost Jansen (EGSHfocuses on mapping patterns of Olympic migration and nationality changes.

What does this mean in a broader sense?

‘By placing the migratory patterns of the Olympics in historical perspective, we’re showing that we’re not in a unique situation. We’re not suddenly living in an uprooted world, although we may think so. This research is basically demythologizing migration.’

Do you feel that putting these issues into perspective is your job as a sociologist?

‘Yes. One of my favourite sociologists says that sociologists are myth hunters. With my research I want to relativise those beliefs. As a result of globalisation, it’s often believed that migration has risen drastically and that nations are under pressure. But the facts show this is not true. The number of migrants worldwide hasn’t changed – it’s just their direction that changed. Now they’re coming to Europe, while one hundred years ago, Europeans were leaving. I want to make sure we don’t forget our history.’