No matter how the subject is covered, dual nationality generates a bottomless well of readings and questions. Investigation of a modern judo issue.
“That day, if I’d won a medal, I would have stood on the podium with both my flags: Uruguay and France.” (Alvaro Paseyro, judoka training in France, 5th in the -81 kg category for Uruguay during the Sidney Olympics, interviewed by L’Esprit du judo n°34, October-November 2011.)
The issue is one on which people don’t share the same view. Is it about rights? About seizing all legal opportunities to reach the end of an athletic and personal, even intimate, quest? About duties— the loyalty of an athlete toward the country where he was formed? Or, like the most mystical of those involved suggest, a destiny, an unwritten chapter, a life you choose instead of enduring, or, in any case, too short to be normal? In elite sport, is it enough to add years to your life, or should you add life to your years? This is a complex topic. Like at any crossroad in life, it’s just as much about history than it is about geography, and it involves notions of human sciences, but also economics and politics.
Context. Once in a while, the media talk about the current manoeuvres happening. For example, in tennis, another individual sport for which you need a partner, the citizenship cycles often had to do with a geopolitical context. As a consequence, during the apartheid, South African volleyball players of the eighties Johan Kriek and Kevin Curren were able to spread their wings under the USA flag. In the same way, during the years of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, the western Eldorado seduced Czechoslovak Hana Mandlikova, Martina Navratilova, and Ivan Lendl, the first of which became an Australian citizen, while the other two became American citizens after numerous hitches and setbacks. You can read the emotional return to Prague, 11 years after a sorrowful one-way trip to the West for the 18-time winner of the Grand Chelem, during a Fed Cup in 1986 opposing her native Czechoslovakia to her adopted United States in the essay Les rivales : Chris Evert contre Martina Navratilova, des duels épiques et une extraordinaire amitié, by Johnette Howard, 2005. More recently, the switch under the Kazakhstan flag for Bulgarian Karatantcheva and Russian Korolev, Kukushkin and Golubev obey to another collective dynamic that satisfies players waiting for new perspectives and a young state hoping to invest in role models in a promising market.
Pandora. In judo, the fighting culture and the density of Caucasian athletes per square kilometre were, for a long time, explanations given by analysts to justify the recurring nature of the double nationality issue. The end of URSS and its unique representative per category, to the detriment of all the medals that could potentially have been won by judokas from various republics that were then part of the Soviet Union? Instead of solving the issue, the administrative and constitutional Big Bang from 1989 to 1992 became a Pandora’s box. From Greek and Ukrainian icons Ilias Iliadis and Georgii Zantaria, both born in Georgia, to Huseyin Ozkan or Selim Tataroglu, both Chechens who respectively became an Olympic champion in the -66 kg category in Sidney and a quadruple Worlds medallist in the heavy weights in the same period, there’s definitely something there. Regular, cyclical and moved by interests that are more and more interrelated, it’s a mix of individual quests and state Iliad whose names aren’t always known. At stake is the reach of the sport, like in the last few years for Olympic and World-medallist Emirati Sergiu Toma, Victor Scvortov, or Ivan Remarenco: because of the poor logistical and financial support from their federation, the three Moldovans were called “dojoless” by their successive partners and hosts around the globe before being recruited by the United Arab Emirates, for which the first two won medals, notably “at home” during the 2013 Abu Dhabi Grand Slam.
Fierce competition. In the last few years, there was also Netherlander Elco van der Geest who started representing Belgium, Cuban Yahima Ramirez who switched to Portugal, and Esther Stam and Linda Bolder, both -70 kg from Netherlands, who respectively decided to fight for Georgia and Israel, Fleming Rosseneu and Brazilian Kamikawa to Israel, and Israeli Schlesinger for Great-Britain. In France, the country for which Angelo Parisi was the first Olympic champion after being born in Italy, and who had won another Olympic medal 8 years earlier for England, the bi-quarterly L’Esprit du judo had notably dedicated numerous articles on the thematic since 2011, talking about good and very good national-level athletes who had to face the fierce competition experienced in certain weight categories and decided to represent the country of one or both their parents, like Alvaro Pasayro (Uruguay), but also, echoing the former French colonial empire, Rizlen Zouak and Asma Niang (Morocco), Séverine Nebie (Burkina Faso), Mustapha Boulemia (Algeria) or Baye Diawara (Senegal).
Tokyo. Recently, the race was on to find the best possible athletes for the team event during the next Olympic Games in Tokyo, and the cycle started again. At the beginning of 2017, two Mongolian fighters and Ukrainian Kindzerska, who won the Dusseldorf Grand Prix a few weeks earlier in +78 kg, officially switched to fight under the Azerbaijani flag. During fall, -90 kg Slovene Mihael Zgank, fresh from his silver medal win at the Budapest World Championships, announced he had started the process to fight for Turkey, a country known for being more than generous for the former countries of its new athletes, notably by offering them better accommodations during tournaments or training camp happening within its borders. In a recent past, Turkey had already “recruited” French Ketty Mathé, who became Kayra Sayit, and Georgian Betkil Shukvani, now known as Bekir Ozlu. At the beginning of 2018, another 25-year-old Turk, unknown under the patronym Vedat Albayrak, impressed by being in three consecutive Grand Prix finals and winning two titles, first in Agadir, then in Antalya. Vedat Albayrak? A quick look on JudoInside set the record straight: he’s the former Greek athlete Roman Moustopoulos, European Champion in the U23 category in 2014, born in Georgia under the name Vano Revazishvili! Still during the spring of 2018, 25-year-old -73 kg Armenian Ferdinand Karapetian, Russian runner-up in 2014, was against Italian Olympic champion Basile in the Ekaterinburg Grand Chelem semifinal. A month later, he was giving his new country the second European title in its history, 13 years after the first one. Almost at the same time, three top Mongolian athletes — former -66 kg world champion Tumurkhuleg Davaadorj, -81 kg Dagvasuren Nyamsuren, third in the Tokyo Grand Chelem in December, and +100 kg Temuulen Battulga, Mongolian flag bearer during the 2016 Rio Olympics (!) — started representing the United Arab Emirates. French Mewen Ferey Mondesir and Austrian Marko Bubanja went even further: after a few inconclusive months fighting for their second nationality (Algeria for the first one, Montenegro for the second), both -90 kg went back to square one and are hoping to represent again their first country. In Canada, Catherine Beauchemin-Pinard, -57 kg headliner during the last Olympics, made a smart move by moving up to the -63 kg category after the Rio Olympics. Her former category is now dominated by two of her younger teammates: Jessica Klimkait, third at the Pan American championships in 2018 (after winning in 2017), then second at the China Grand Prix, has been defeated twice by her “new” teammate Christa Deguchi, who was born and trained in Japan and spends most of her time there. She won two medals for Japan at the Junior World Championships, and now, she wants to see “how far she can go” with her father’s native country, after the three-year wait required by the international regulation.
Structure. Indeed. Although it seems like a win-win for all parties concerned, the process is met with reluctance from the proponents of meritocracy, territorial principles and right of blood in the middle of a very competitive bubble, in countries where the border can be thin between patriotism and nationalism. With these reactions, there was a need to apply a framework to avoid any excess. What is the official saying on the subject? In section 1.7 of the International Judo Federation Sport and Organisation Rules, in the July 2018 review, it is said that “if a competitor has multiple citizenships, they may compete for only one country. A competitor who has represented one country in the Olympic Games, World Championships, in continental, regional games and/or Championships or International Tournaments organised by the IJF or under its auspices, and who has changed his nationality or acquired a new nationality may represent his new country provided that at least three years have passed since the athlete last represented his former country. If the two National Federations concerned agree, they may request the IJF to shorten the period of three years or even to cancel the duration completely (see Olympic Charter, Rule 41 and the By-law to Rule 41).
Thus, the IJF can’t shorten the three years’ period without written agreement from both National Federations concerned.” This is followed by four paragraphs detailing the technicality to shorten the 3-year delay.
Compensation. Seen as a way to compensate the former country, where the athlete was trained, for the consequences of a nationality change in an amateur sport where there’s no official financial compensation after the transfer, the 3-year delay is at the heart of the discussions between parties. Nothing can explain this better than these three examples. We have chosen two cases offering years of hindsight, Hungarian-Australian Mária Pékli, and Canadian-French Alister Ward, as well as German-Panamanian Miryam Roper-Yearwood, a 36-year-old judoka who has hindsight while still being in the middle of it.
Mária Pékli — Three Years Back, a Life Forward
At 24 years old, the former Hungarian athlete didn’t hesitate to sacrifice three years of her youth to follow her own path. Two decades later, she still stands by her decision.
Coming from the JC Baja, 200 km south of Budapest, Laszlo Andrassy’s student is 24 years old and has been to two Olympic Games and three world championships when she wins her sixth and last senior national title in Hungary, her fourth in a row. Five months earlier, she was the European runner-up in the -56 kg category. She didn’t know it yet, but she’d have to wait 1104 days, at the Colorado Spring US Open in October 1999, before stepping on the mats again for an international tournament. Why? She decided to leave Hungary for Australia, homeland of her then boyfriend. Without having an agreement with her former team, she has to wait the entire regulatory 3 years out of the international circuit. It was hard, especially since the period between 24 and 27 years old is when athletes are at their peak performance; in another sport, it was the same sacrifice boxer Mohammed Ali in his time, with the Vietnam War and a fight for civil rights in the background. Mária fought the frustration by keeping on training, and competing in the few tournaments presented in her new country. During that period, she won one Open and three national titles. “I’ve always wanted to come back. I made sure that I’d be ready on the day I’d become an Australian citizen.”
Pride. After a slow come back in North America and during the Oceania Championships, she’s back on the European mats in March 2000. “The other girls remembered me, but they had forgotten my style. The difference in the perception probably gave me a surprise effect and allowed for a few great wins.” There was still 6 months left before the Sydney Olympic Games. Energized by a compliment from Slovene Marjan Fabjan, usually greedy with those, who saw her knocking down his protégés during a training camp—he told her, between two doors, that he “saw her on the podium in Sidney”—the newly -57 kg makes the final twice in Rome, and once in Rotterdam, before the ultimate reward after years of waiting, an Olympic bronze on September 18 in Sidney. “I wish everyone to chance a chance to know the absolute bliss that is winning an Olympic medal at home.” Was it her proudest moment? Curiously, no. That moment would come 8 years later, in Beijing. She was in the semi-final and ended in 5th place at her 5th and last Olympic Games. She only has positive things to say about her elimination against Brazilian Quadros, who was 15 years her junior: “I was a 36-year-old mom, I placed 5th at Worlds for Hungary in 1993, and for Australia in 2003, I was juggling training, work, and family life, and I was still competitive against girls who were almost half my age; that meant a lot to me.”
Steps. 10 years have gone by since that last stand. When she looks back, the now technical director for the Australian Judo Federation has no regrets—she remembers the obstacles she overcame instead of the years she lost. “I wouldn’t have the life and the family I have now if I hadn’t made that decision in 1996. My medal in Sidney had a huge impact for s sport that is still small in Australia, and today, I can see the next generation starting to perform on the international stage. I know the value of these medals, and I relish the progression even more knowing that we’re doing it without much help from our government.” What about her native Hungary? “My entire family lives there. Since the death of my mother, a few months ago, I’m the oldest one left. I go anytime I can, and I visit my former club. I even send young athletes there, because I remember that this is where it all started for me.”
Alister Ward—Comeback and investment
French until 2011, then Canadian until 2014, and back to French since, let’s look at the unusual journey of a -66 kg.
Coming from a sport-studies program in Bordeaux and a medallist at the Cadet and Junior France Championships in 2011, at 20 years old, Alister Ward was given a chance to join the Canadian team during a staging camp before the Paris World Championships. The project made sense for the -66 kg, who trained with the UJ from the South Arcachon Bay in southwestern France. Born in Montreal, he lived there for the first few months of his life. He was in third grade when his parents divorced. His father, a guitarist, decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean again to move to Nashville, Tennessee, and live his dream of being a jazzman.
Competition. With both federations not vetoing, the first selections came almost immediately. In competition, Alister started his Canadian experience in October 2011 during the Boras European Cup, in Sweden, and ended in February 2014, after a prestigious win at the Paris Grand Slam against Kilian Le Blouch, who would eventually win the Olympic title for France in Rio, in 2016. During that period, still regularly training at the Institut de judo de
Paris, he had a chance to compete in a dozen international tournament, a chance he wouldn’t have had if he had stayed with France, his weight category being locked in with the trio Larose-Dragin-Korval. “I was welcomed in Team Canada, because they didn’t see me as an opponent, but as a ‘partner in progress’. I wasn’t taking anyone’s place, so I was only met with kindness and a healthy competition.” In summer 2013, when Nicolas Gill talks about the possibility for him to move to Montreal, Alister thought about it before declining the offer. “I was 22 at the time, and I felt that, at that point in my career, I had to focus on my studies. It was important for me to start working. Our relationship ended there in very good terms, because I was dealing with good and composed people who understood the stakes of high-level sports and everything around it.”
Moving. What Alister learned most during his adventure on Canadian grounds is that, after a dozen years of minimal communication with his father through social media, he was able to get closer to him, and not only geographically. “On July 5, 2012, I was 3rd during the Canadian Championships in Toronto. What I remember most about that day, and the 2 weeks after, is that I was able to spend time with my brothers and sisters who live there, and that my father came from Nashville to see us.” Now working as a fireman, and being a university and military national champion (he placed 5th during the Military World Games in 2016), Alister Ward could experience the joy of a first senior national podium, at 26, when he defeated the experienced Sofiane Milous, former European champion and 5th in London in a lower weight category, for a bronze medal. However, at peace with his decision, and now considering “every judo moment like time spent with friends”, this medal won with the Arts Martiaux d’Asnières team is not his best memory from that year. Five months earlier, in May 2017, Alister got married. The ceremony took place in Voisins-le-Bretonneux, in Yvelines. In the first row were his father and the rest of his family from across the Atlantic. “My experience with the Canadian team was short, but it was about much more than just judo,” he said.
Miryam Roper-Yearwood — Captain of her soul
Because she decided only she could decide when she’d retire, the former German, in her thirties, is feeling young again, fighting under the Panamanian flag since 2017.
Fall 2016. A few weeks after the Rio Olympics where, like in 2012, in London, she was defeated for the tenth time by her nemesis, Brazilian Rafaela Silva (Olympic champion since August 8 that year), German Miryam Roper takes a 6-week-long break, during which she goes on a road trip to France to reflect on the last 7 years. Going to her first Worlds at 29—in 2011, in Paris, where she started off with an impressive pinning on Portguese Monteiro, finalist of the last three editions, only losing during her bronze-medal fight against Japanese Matsumoto, world title holder who won the Olympic title 11 months later—the multilingual daughter of 2 engineers took her chance in a category long dominated by Yvonne Boenisch, Olympic champion in 2004 and double World finalist. Ranked first in the world in fall 2013, triple European medallist in 2012, 2014 and 2015, the athlete, who preciously keeps the heavy bronze medal she won during the 2013 Worlds in Rio on her bedroom doorknob, is then 34 years old. Is she going to stay for another Olympic cycle? Studying French and Spanish comparative literature, she doesn’t plan that far ahead. However, getting a last medal at Worlds seems possible, even though she knows she’s now on the older side of the circuit. 25 years ago, British sprinter Linford Christie said “Your age is in your head” after becoming a champion later in life, like our judoka, who spent a long time juggling her schedule between 3 team training sessions and multiple jobs (ad agency, bar, coffee shop, bakery, ice cream shop…).
Call. Back to fall 2016. “Mimi” gets a call from Claudiu Pusa, new head-coach for the Mannshaft. Like other athletes from her generation, she understands that her time left on the national team is limited. She’ll turn 40 in 2020, and even though her career started when she was older than the average judoka, the new team would rather bet on younger athletes. Rattled by the decision, the athlete decides that “the end of a career happens on the mats, not on the phone.”
Elegance. What’s her other option? The answer is in her blood. In 2014, a trip to Panama allowed her to reconnect with her father’s family, which she hadn’t seen in a long time. 9000 km away from Cologne, in that thin strip of land in Central America, is where her uncle asked the question that would change her life: “Why don’t you fight for Panama?” She thinks about it more seriously in December 2016, when she wins the Golden League in Chechnya with her Austrian friends in the Samurai in Vienna, symbolically defeating her young teammate Theresa Stoll. In February 2017, during the Dusseldorf Grand Prix, event for which she was a headliner for a long time, but that she would then watch from the stands, Miryam connects with Estela Riley, President of the Panamanian federation. Pleasant surprise: the German federation doesn’t interfere with the transfer. “In three weeks, everything was done.” Miryam feels 10 years longer. She knows it’ll be a big challenge, but the family aspect will help her through it.
Opportunity. Like Ilias Iliadis in his time, she experiences the huge solidarity chain from the judo community toward lone wolves like herself. The Lambert brothers in Cologne, her spiritual father Michael Bazynski in Netherlands, her friends Sugoi Uriarte and Laura Gomez in Spain, Javier Guedes in Panama: the world turns into a huge dojo in which she can find the key to success. “Liberty is an opportunity, but it’s also a responsibility,” she said. “I can’t live in the past. Life is here and now.”
Family. Just like a sign, her first competition under her new flag was hosted by Panama. With her family cheering, and despite new rules and a lack of reference points because of a long break, after identifying with her Venezuelan coach the Spanish words she’d need during the bout, she finished in 5th place in her first Pan American Championships after being defeated by Klimkait, from Canada, and Malloy, from the United States; the -57 kg category is one of the most competitive categories on the continent. A few weeks later: success. Now being funded by the IJF, she wins twice: a gold medal at the Russia Grand Slam, and a silver at the Mexico Grand Prix. In her pocket was a piece of paper on which she wrote, in Spanish: “Pressure is not worth your energy. I already have everything I need inside of me.”
Inspiration. 5th at Worlds in 2017, 3rd at the Pan American Championships in 2018, regular face on the podium in numerous tournaments, and being over 35, she slowly became her uncle’s “other daughter”, multiplying public relation activities and fully embracing her role as an “inspiration for women in Central America”. She still lives in Germany, but she never forgot that her destiny could have been different, and despite the inevitable difficulties of being long-distance, she applauds her decision every day. “I’m not trying to relive my own past—those days are behind me. Every day is a new opportunity. I want to embrace every moment, and create new memories. I’m the one in charge of writing my own story.” If we had to summarize double nationality in a sentence, that would be it.
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