The Sophia Young saga
Recently, St Vincent and the Grenadines found itself at the centre of what is a rather common occurrence in international sport today – the matter of a national seeking to change citizenship to compete for another nation.
There are always cases of athletes, having the experience of another country’s sports development programme and the range of opportunities afforded nationals who are wont to call on their own country to allow them to change nationality.
We have had several such cases in different parts of the world.
Several Caribbean countries have had a number of sportsmen and women who have been living abroad and who have gone on to represent the country in which they reside because they were citizens there. The athletes made their own choices.
Perhaps one of the more popular athletes from the region to do so was McDonald Bailey of Trinidad and Tobago who ran for England during his entire career. He was heavily chastised by sports enthusiasts in the twin-island nation because he did at one stage have the option of competing for his homeland but chose not to do so.
St Vincent and the Grenadines’ George Manners represented England at the Commonwealth Games on several occasions and won gold and silver medals in doing so. It was not until 1970 that he opted to compete for St Vincent and the Grenadines and won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
In the early days of Caribbean involvement in sport the countries were under British rule and consequently in the international sports community there was no problem for an athlete to compete for the colonial power rather than for his native country.
When Caribbean countries began to access Independence and national sports federations became members of their respective international governing bodies and also when they began to establish National Olympic Committees, the people of the region began to vent their dissatisfaction with athletes who chose to compete for foreign countries. But the athletes resident abroad often responded by pointing to the inadequacy of the sports facilities back in the Caribbean as well as the lack of experience of the national federations in terms of international sport.
Over the years however while much has changed there are still many instances of athletes making the choice to compete for foreign countries.
Many athletes who have studied in the USA and who are involved in sport have been persuaded to change nationality and have gone on to represent their new country in international competition.
Jamaica’s Sandra Farmer, who later became Sandra Farmer-Patrick, is a well-known case. She wanted to compete for the USA rather than Jamaica and got her opportunity to make her first Olympic team when she competed in the Olympic Trials. She lost the race on a technicality. Rumours seemed to suggest that while clearly upset she apparently communicated with the Jamaican athletics authorities to see if she would be allowed to compete for her native country. This did not happen and she stayed with the USA. She had a very good year in 1989 when she was awarded the USA’s Female Athlete of the Year award by The Athletics Congress (TAC) the name of the governing body for the sport in the USA at the time.
There have been many cases of athletes from Kenya in particular in the recent past that has been bought over by Qatar and Bahrain.
It often appears that in the current period of these transfers the impetus is really the greater access to monetary rewards. Facilities, access to coaching of a higher standard, easier access to international competition are also important considerations.
Over time, however, the various international sports federations have come to recognise the problems posed by athletes who change nationalities. Importantly, international federations have had to deal with complaints from national federations from small, poor, developing nations in respect of the ‘poaching’ of their more successful athletes by federations from developed nations.
In many instances the federations complained that they would have nurtured and invested in the development of the athletes only to find them snatched by developed nations when they are at full bloom or just about to bloom.
National federations from small, poor countries, find themselves at the mercy of critics at home for their continued participation at international sports events without success. Some critics call for an end to such participation claiming that it is embarrassing to the country.
Faced with these complaints international Federations have essentially been forced to agree an approach that would be as universally applicable as possible.
The essence of the approach is that if an athlete wishes to change nationality if both national sports federations – the one from her original citizenship and the one to which she wishes to be attached under new citizenship – agree to the change then the athlete can represent her new country after one (1) year. If however they do not agree, such that the federation of her original country refuses to free her then she has to wait a mandatory period of three (3) years before being able to represent the new country.
There have been several countries, for example, that have refused to agree with the new change and have compelled the athlete to wait for the three years. Perhaps the most popular is the case of Lagat of Kenya who changed citizenship and wanted to compete for the USA.
In the Caribbean there is the notable case of Kareem Street-Thompson of the Cayman Islands who also became a US citizen. In this case Thompson missed one edition of the Olympic Games while awaiting the three years and this was when he was at his best. Interestingly, he later changed back to the Cayman islands. However the USA and the Cayman Islands federations agreed and he only had to wait one year. He claimed to have regretted his decision to change to the US initially.
In the case of Basketball, the rules are much different. FIBA, the international federation governing the sport of Basketball is very clear on its own stance in respect of players of a country.
FIBA’s Internal Regulations Rule H2 deals with the ‘National Status of Players’. Essentially this section has a series of sub sections, which speak to players of a single nationality as well as those possessive of two nationalities.
Rule H.2.3.1 states: “In order to play for the national team of a country, a player must hold the legal nationality of that country, and have fulfilled also the conditions of eligibility according to the Internal Regulations.”
Rule H.18.104.22.168 states: “Any player with two legal nationalities or more, by birth or by naturalisation, may choose at any age the national team for which he wishes to play. Any such choice must be made in a written declaration to FIBA….”
Significantly, Rule H.22.214.171.124 states: Any player, having played in a main official competition of FIBA for a national team for which he is eligible is considered as having chosen the national team of that country …
FIBA’s strictness governing national status of players is evident in Rule H126.96.36.199 states: Choices made under H.188.8.131.52, H.184.108.40.206 and H.220.127.116.11 are irrevocable. This means that once the choice is made it cannot be reversed.
Sophia Young of St Vincent and the Grenadines has done well for herself in the sport of Basketball in the USA but has never represented this country at any level. This therefore means that she has not officially declared the country as her choice in respect of national representation. It now appears that she may be accessing US citizenship and has an interest of representing that country in the future. This is a critical issue and the intricacies have not really been fully teased out.
Given the aforementioned regulations once Young makes her choice to play for the US that is it. The decision is irrevocable.
The reasons for her wanting to play for the US have not been made public. One can however hazard a guess that some of the reasons identified in the first part of this Column may well be at work. The decision however remains hers to make.
Interestingly however the sports analysts may well have been too quick to ditch the concerns raised in some quarters.
In reality the local Basketball Federation would probably have been thinking that given the outstanding performances of Young and Sancho Lyttle it just may be possible that a relatively powerful national team could be built around them. Some members of the sports fraternity here may also have had similar visions. While it is true that this may take some time it would nonetheless be a consideration especially since the sporting public is unforgiving when national representative teams do poorly abroad. Some members of the public
Another consideration would probably that once Young goes this route it may well be possible that Sancho Lyttle could follow suit. This would then leave the local Basketball Federation without a single international player on whom it could call in respect of the construction over time of a national women’s team of significance. This essentially means going back to or staying at ‘square one’, and staying in the mouths of the severest critics for failing to develop the sport at the national level. That seems an unfair criticism when it is possible that this country could continue to produce good basketball players only to lose them to a more developed nation.
The local Basketball Federations cannot compete with the USA in respect of what it can offer the athletes mentioned above. If this continues then we may well agree that the local sports fraternity is left to produce athletes for export rather than for the local market. Thereby hangs a tale.
Of course, no one would want to restrain any individual from making his/her own choices of which country he/she wants to represent.
It is quite common for us to look at the achievements of those who have left our shores and represent other countries and remind ourselves that they are Vincentian. Some as hollow may well see that since the country they are really representing is not Hairoun.
The Caribbean is replete with examples of people from this region placing themselves at the service of other nations for a variety of personal and other reasons. This is nothing new.
The choice really, at this stage is not that of the local Federation but of Sophia Young herself. The local Federation as well as the local sports fraternity could only request consideration of the nation that gave her birth and her early start in the sport.
Already though it appears that the die has been cast; the choice has been made.