The List

Carpetbagging the Olympics

How to ski for Dominica if you're an Italian couple from Staten Island.

At the Winter Olympics in Sochi this February, a German prince will represent Mexico. A South Korea native will represent Russia. And a Singapore-born, London-raised violinist will ski for Thailand.

Meet 2014's Olympic carpetbaggers -- the latest in a long line of competitors who've sought glory under a foreign flag. Like other imported athletes before them, they've established only tenuous ties to their ostensible motherlands, and exist as awkward reminders that, even as the Games embrace the rhetoric of national pride, opportunism knows no borders.

Though the Olympic Charter requires all athletes to be citizens of the country for which they compete, the phenomenon of "passport swapping," as it's often called, is surprisingly common. In 2012, the Telegraph reported that 61 members of Team Great Britain were born overseas and that one of them -- wrestler Olga Butkevych -- had received her U.K. passport only a few months before the games. The United States is particularly prone to the practice, even offering a special visa for aspiring Olympians (deemed "aliens of extraordinary abilities").

Why engage in carpetbagging? For the athletes, it's a chance at, if not Olympic glory, at least the experience of lifetime. For the countries that take them in, it's shot at a medal that would otherwise be hopeless. It's a win-win -- as long no one thinks too hard about what it means to actually hail from somewhere. Over the years, athletes of all talent levels and resources have devised creative ways of getting to the Games. Here are some of our favorite, tried-and-tested carpetbagging strategies from Olympics past and present:

1. Use your wealth (and daddy's passport) to play for a country where you have no competition.

Tired of chasing the Olympic dream equipped with just subpar athletic ability and lacking the necessary years of training? You can still make it -- but it'll cost you.

Child prodigy turned international violin superstar Vanessa-Mae, who is most famous for her unusual music style -- a techno-acoustic violin crossover -- will be competing for Thailand in alpine skiing during the upcoming games in Sochi. Born in Singapore, Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson received British citizenship thanks to her stepfather. She was raised in Britain, but owing to her Thai father she still holds a passport that will allow her to race alongside skiing powerhouse nations such as Austria, Germany, and the United States. (Don't expect her to thank him for the privilege, though: he famously disowned her in the mid-1990s over issues of her attire, or lack thereof.) No matter, says the new pride of Bangkok. "I wanted to compete for Thailand because there is a part of me which I have never celebrated -- being Thai," she said in an interview.

Of course, in Thailand -- where average temperatures do not fall below 55 degrees Fahrenheit -- it just so happens that she doesn't face much competition either. And Vanessa-Mae, whose fortune in 2006 was estimated at $52 million, wasn't one to be hindered by Thailand's lack of any ski facilities whatsoever: in 2009, she moved to the Swiss resort of Zermatt to train on its snowy slopes.

Vanessa-Mae and another alpine skier, Kanes Sucharitakul, will comprise Thailand's second  Winter Olympic team ever: the country's only previous competitor had been electrical engineering professor Prawat Nagvajara, who competed in cross-country skiing.

The violinist says she is fully aware of her own athletic shortcomings. "When it comes to music I am a perfectionist but when it is skiing, I have no delusions about a podium or even being in the top 100 in the world," she said in an interview.

Others in this category -- perhaps one of the most common forms of carpetbagging -- include Gary di Silvestri, 46, a native of Staten Island, and his Italian wife Angelica Morrone di Silvestri, 48, who received citizenship in Dominica for their philanthropic work in the country. The couple, who had previously done well for themselves in finance careers, will be competing in Sochi in cross-country skiing, as Dominica's first-ever Winter Olympics team.

2. Sell your talents as an athlete-mercenary.

Some Olympic athletes compete for gold; others compete for cash. Though the practice is generally frowned upon, plenty of would-be Olympians sell their athletic talents to distant nations hungry for a medal.

Bulgarian weightlifters and Kenyan long-distance runners tend to dominate in this category, as they hail from poor countries that also happen to boast specialized athletic prowess, which can be had -- for a price. In the 2012 London Olympics, Bulgarian weightlifters Boyanka Kostova and Valentin Hristov represented Azerbaijan for the hefty fee of more than $500,000. Bahrain is a top importer of Kenyan long-distance runners, though the practice doesn't always turn out so well for the runners: In 2007, Mushir Salem Jawher, a Kenyan runner who had left for to Bahrain a few years earlier, was ousted from his new home after running a marathon in Israel, a country that Bahrain does not recognize.

Qatar, meanwhile, invests heavily in athletes from both Kenya and Bulgaria. In 2000, Qatar's government bought an entire Bulgarian weightlifting team -- eight athletes in total -- in exchange for citizenship and a little over $1 million In 2003, it also reportedly bought two Kenyan long-distance runners: Stephen Cherono and Albert Chepkurui, who duly became Qatari Olympians Saif Saeed Shaheen and Ahmad Hassan Abdullah (neither Cherono nor Chepkurui were actually Muslim).

Athletic mercenaries, as it turns out, are hardly a new phenomenon. During the Hellenistic period, athletes competing in the Greek Olympics often sold their talents to the highest-paying nation states. Greek political leaders saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to win political influence with their neighbors, and were willing to pay for that chance. These days, however, the investment doesn't always pay off. The efforts of Qatar and Azerbaijan, for example, have only yielded one bronze medal for each.  And while Kenya has won gold in men's steeplechase at every Olympic Games since 1968, Qatar and Bahrain have yet to make it to the top of the podium.

3. Represent a country that is not recognized by Olympic authorities.

First things first: to compete at the Games, a would-be Olympian needs a country. That's not so easy, however, when you happen to be from a place that's been embroiled in a decades-long territorial dispute. What's an athlete to do besides take her talents on the road when the nation she holds a passport for hasn't been recognized by the International Olympic Committee?

Majlinda Kelmendi, the 2009 judo junior world champion and 2013 world champion, fought hard with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to compete for tiny Kosovo in the 2012 London games. (Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but has yet to be recognized by all United Nations members, and Serbia has lobbied to keep the country out of federations like the IOC that might bestow upon it international legitimacy.)

"I've worked so hard for this, I've dreamed of representing my country at the Olympics, and I really don't want someone to tell me it's not possible to fight for Kosovo in London," she told the Financial Times. "I don't understand why everything has to be about politics."

Five other athletes tried to compete for Kosovo in London, but their bids were rejected. Ultimately, only Kelmendi ended up going to London. (Though she was courted by the Azerbaijanis, she ultimately decided to compete for Albania, who may have been disappointed in their ringer: despite her previous showings, Kelmendi failed to even make it to the quarterfinals.)

There are several other unrecognized Olympic committees, including Kurdistan, Catalonia, and, notably, Abkhazia. The latter is a breakaway Georgian republic that neighbors Sochi, and its athletes were only allowed to compete under another nation's flag (most of them opt for Russian citizenship). Abkhaz wrestler Denis Tsargush won a bronze for Russia at the 2012 London Olympics.

4. Use your royal connections.

For a certain breed of Olympians, a quick perusal of the family tree provides a range of options when it comes to choosing flags under which to compete. With their wide selection of passports and sizable family coffers, European aristocrats can hedge their bets and choose a citizenship of convenience.

Take Germany's Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe, who has emerged as the Sochi Olympics' favorite underdog. The 55-year-old athlete, who will represent Mexico on the slalom course, made a splash when he debuted his race suit on NBC last week: a spandex Mariachi get-up, complete with fake embroidery, a ruffled shirt, a red cummerbund and cravat.

Hohenlohe has admitted that, with the flashy outfit, he's compensating for what look like slim chances of making it to the podium, joking that he could at least win for being best-dressed. Hohenlohe's hat tip to Mexico's folk music traditions may also be an attempt to win over any countrymen who may still be dubious of his south-of-the-border street cred (despite this being the sixth time he's skied for the country): though his grandmother was half-Mexican and Hohenlohe was born in Mexico City, he grew up far from the country. The descendant of an aristocratic German family which once ruled the principality of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, Hubertus learned to ski in the backyards of his European boarding schools.

"Until I went to Mexico recently to make a documentary, I never realized what a beautiful, amazing, rich past and culture they have and what a proud people they are," he said in a recent interview.

Other royal mercenaries include the German Princess Nathalie of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, niece to Danish Queen Margrethe, who earned Denmark a bronze in dressage in 2008.

5. Or just take up bobsledding.

Passport-swapping isn't the only way to make it as an Olympic carpetbagger. Some athletes just swap sports. Competing in a similar or somewhat less-demanding sport (no harm intended) could, after all, help a down-and-out athlete regain his or her former glory.

Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones is perhaps the most famous example in recent memory. A favorite at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jones lost her shot at a medal when she tripped on hurdle. In London, four years later, she was one-tenth of a second from a bronze. But just months after that heartbreaking loss, she switched events (and seasons), taking up the unfamiliar sport of bobsledding. She was, as it turns out, not bad: After just a year, she and teammate Jamie Greubel finished second in the world on a two-person sled, earning her a spot on the U.S. team. Naturally, some of her new teammates -- most of whom had spent years training -- were none too happy about it.

Other notable sport-swapping carpetbaggers include Willie Gault, a former wide receiver for the Chicago Bears who made the U.S. bobsledding team in 1988, and Herschel Walker, a star NFL running back who made the bobsledding team in 1992.

There are a couple of reasons that so many aspiring Olympians turn to bobsled: If you're already an athlete, sledding isn't that hard to pick up. Besides the driver, the remaining team members are basically there to push for a few seconds at the start (and then duck). To be fair, that starting push requires world-class power and speed, but those are skills that are often honed in other sports.

But while the Olympic medals may be decided by mere thousandths of a second, the nature of bobsledding -- and the cost of fielding a competitive team -- renders the sport actually less competitive than many others. (A set of blades can cost $10,000 and a sled up to $100,000.) And there are only 17 tracks in the world.

Thus, poorer countries without training facilities have been known to happily accept carpetbobbers: North America, for instance, has at least four competition-ready tracks and, accordingly, produces many of the world's Olympic sledders: Athletes from the United States have represented Greece, Armenia, Venezuela, and Thailand, among others.

* * *

Olympic carpetbagging is an evolving phenomenon, with new iterations debuting at virtually every Olympic Games. This year, for instance, a Tongan luger has emerged as a new type of athlete-mercenary: one sponsored by a marketing firm. For a price, 21-year-old Fuahea Semi moved to Germany, learned luge and changed his name to Bruno Banani, after a German underwear company -- part of an ambitious, Olympic-themed marketing campaign for the brand. The ploy was ultimately uncovered -- but, as it turns out, the athlete-for-hire proved pretty decent at luge. This year, he'll represent Tonga at Sochi, the first winter Olympian to represent the Pacific nation.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images; Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images; YURI CORTEZ/AFP/GettyImages; Buda Mendes/Getty Images; HENNING BAGGER/AFP/Getty Images; CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

The List

Out of the Way, Congress

5 reasons U.S. lawmakers need to get on board with mega-regional free trade deals.

Last week, U.S. lawmakers took a critical step toward inking mega-regional free trade deals with Europe and 11 Asia-Pacific countries -- deals that could generate hundreds of billions in revenue and keep the U.S. economy inching along the path to recovery. But passage of the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill, which would allow the president to fast-track free trade deals, is bound to involve a bitter political fight as several Democrats and members of the Tea Party have already lined up in opposition to the law. On the left, TPA raises the usual concerns for labor and the environment, while on the far right it presents one more opportunity to jam up the president. Across the board, lawmakers have raised concerns about transparency.

But without a trade promotion authority, which expired in 2007, the United States will be unable to finalize the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), neither of which can be fully negotiated without an authority in place. (Europeans and Asians have indicated they are unwilling to negotiate the thorniest trade topics before they know TPA is in place requiring the U.S. Congress to vote up or down on future deals, rather than amending freshly negotiated texts.) So even if Congress is justifiably angry about the unprecedented level of secrecy surrounding recent trade talks, it needs to see the bigger picture: TPA is critical for American economy, entrepreneurship, and global leadership. Here are five major reasons why:

Growth and jobs. The U.S. economy is recovering, yet headwinds lurk on the horizon -- from the Fed's unwinding to stagnating key export markets. Europe is battling low growth and high unemployment; Japan's Abenomics has yet to deliver promised growth gains, in part due to persistent protectionism that the TPP would undo; and China's economy is set to expand at its slowest pace in 15 years. While serious economic turmoil may have been averted, the trillion-dollar question remains: Where is global growth going to come from in the future? Trade is a key place to look: The TTIP is expected to generate an annual $130 billion in gains for the United States and $162 billion for Europe. The TPP, meanwhile, will boost U.S. annual gains by $77 billion and Japan's by $104 billion. As such, the TTIP will raise U.S. household incomes by $865 annually and create 750,000 new U.S. jobs, while the TPP would generate about $1,230 per household by 2025 -- a significant windfall without a dime of deficit spending, and a strong bonus on the $10,000 in average annual income gains American households have already scored due to post-war trade opening. And by locking in first-rate rules and open markets, the trade deals will give U.S. companies the confidence they need to dip into their $5 trillion in cash holdings -- enabling them buy American inputs and hire U.S. workers.

Geocommercial edge. As gatekeepers of markets with two-thirds of total global spending power, the TPP and TTIP will amount to giant magnetic docking stations for current outsiders, especially emerging and frontier markets. Most remarkably, China, the world's largest trader and a TPP skeptic, is seriously considering joining the deal, now seen by various domestic interests as a means to counteract the economic slowdown and drive much-needed reforms, especially of state-owned enterprises. Likewise, Brazil, the world's seventh largest economy, is being pushed by its business lobbies to consider the TTIP and TPP -- a 180 degree turn for a country that completely missed the global wave of trade integration. With Brazil opening, the long-awaited U.S.-led Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) idea could eventually become a reality. The bottom line for Congress: Once done, the U.S.-led deals will forever alter the strategic landscape of the global trading system, with even some cantankerous BRICs falling in line. America will have positioned itself to set the tone and tempo of global trade politics for decades to come.

Digital economy gains. The old U.S. trade agenda -- immortalized in such deals as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) -- prioritized corporate supply chains: It removed barriers to trade in parts, components, and final products; opened foreign markets for U.S. investors; and sped up customs procedures. These objectives still matter, but physical supply chains will be less critical as 3-D printing and nanotechnology expand. Manufacturers will increasingly be able to print parts and components right off the Web. Meanwhile, the arrival of the industrial Internet, e-commerce, e-invoicing, and online payments all mean that the global economy will increasingly run not on ships but on the cloud.

Few nations are as well-placed to profit from this new order as the United States. Yet barriers are sprouting. Countries such as TPP member Vietnam are forcing U.S. companies to locate servers in their nations as a pre-condition for market access, while Europeans, incensed about the Snowden scandal, are bent on limiting the data that U.S. companies serving European customers can access and transfer back to America. Too many developing nations are now cracking down on Web users for political and protectionist reasons. Ensuring a fair and unfettered digital economy requires enlightened rules on cross-border e-commerce and data flows, intellectual property protections, dispute settlement mechanisms, and so on. The TPP and TTIP offer Washington an opportunity to establish such rules. But unless Congress passes TPA, there will be no new rules -- at least not ones that are Made in the USA.

Boost for Main Street exporters. Big business may be spearheading the TPA lobby, but small businesses -- the backbone of U.S. economy -- also stand to gain. Giant corporations like Apple and GE still dominate U.S. exports, but small businesses are on an export roll, riding the wave of past U.S. trade deals like NAFTA: Some 300,000 small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) collectively generate one third of U.S. exports. Study after study shows that these export-driven SMEs are the nation's fastest growing and most productive companies. They also happen to be among the most vocal of TPA proponents.

Moreover, as e-commerce, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, and other DIY technologies expand, Americans of all walks of life can become one (wo)man-multinationals -- designers, assemblers, and sellers of goods and services exported around the planet. This export opportunity will explode between now and 2025, as 5 billion new Internet users log-on across the developing world. In the process, millions of new American jobs can be created and thousands of new businesses launched -- but only if smart trade rules are established that open markets and level playing fields globally. The mega-regionals are a perfect venue to start this process. 

Restore American leadership. The United States has for decades been the world's quarterback, brokering differences between nations and providing critical global public goods: a global reserve currency, deep financial markets, vigorous economic growth, and an open trade regime. Today, the devastating financial crisis, disappointing growth, and plain-dumb bickering over the budget risk making "American leadership" an oxymoron. For an administration that campaigned on renegotiating NAFTA and pausing the George W. Bush administration's vibrant trade agenda, the TPP and TTIP represent a stunning about-face -- and the best chance for America to regain its global leadership role.

It's time lawmakers stop framing trade agreements as Trojan Horses that ship American jobs abroad, and start advocating for trade deals as instruments to secure an open and rules-based global trading system -- and to unshackle and empower U.S. companies, small businesses, and garage entrepreneurs to drive America's economic recovery.

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