Mikaela Shiffrin: I'm chasing the world

Mikaela Shiffrin, reigning Olympic and world slalom champion, shares her hopes for Winter Olympic success in alpine skiing.

Posted: Feb 12, 2018 7:17 AM
Updated: Feb 12, 2018 7:17 AM

Competing for your country at an Olympic Games is the highest honor for some. For others, the national flag on your kit is altogether more complicated.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang will feature 178 athletes who are competing for a non-native nation, about 6% of the total competing in South Korea, according to research by global mobility company CapRelo.

The US has experienced the biggest talent drain, with 37 American-born athletes competing for other nations, followed by 21 from Canada and 19 from Russia.

Hosts South Korea are the biggest winners, welcoming 18 athletes from other countries followed by 13 to Canada and 11 to Germany.

Alpine skiing features the most non-native athletes with 32, while figure skating has seen 26 changes of flag.

Twelve countries are represented wholly by non-native athletes, eight of which are single person teams, and three -- Nigeria, Kosovo and Eritrea -- are making their first appearance at a Winter Games as a result, according to the research.

READ: North Korean inclusion a 'positive thing,' says US skier star Ted Ligety

'I skied for myself, not for my country'

However, the bare statistics often hide the nuances.

Nigerian skeleton slider Simidele Adeagbo was born in Toronto, Canada, while the Nigerian women's bobsled team -- the first from Africa to make the Games -- of Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga were all born in the US, but always felt a deep-rooted affinity for Nigeria. Adigun also competed at the 2012 London Olympics in the 100m hurdles for Nigeria.

"Being Nigerian was always something that was definitely prominent in my childhood, as it is as much as in adulthood. That was the first culture that I've ever known," Omeoga told CNN Sport.

READ: Nigerian women's bobsled team make Winter Olympics history

For some athletes, switching nations is a necessity to maintain their livelihood.

Former alpine ski racer Kilian Albrecht, who is now the agent for US star Mikaela Shiffrin, competed for his native Austria at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City before switching to Bulgaria, for whom he competed at Vancouver 2010.

Albrecht says he was frozen out by the Austrian team, despite still performing well enough on skiing's World Cup circuit, but he needed to compete for a nation to be eligible to stay on the tour.

"It wasn't about the Olympics for me," he told CNN Sport.

"I skied for myself, not for my country. I just wanted to continue my job as a ski racer and that wasn't possible so that's why I looked for an option and ended up skiing for Bulgaria."

Albrecht says he had some detractors when he got his Bulgarian passport in 2006 and was accused of being a traitor in some quarters, but he insists he also had plenty of support, as well as phone calls from other athletes wanting to switch.

"Obviously it's controversial -- they say, 'well, he just switched nations because he was really bad,' which isn't true," says Albrecht, who still consults for Bulgaria and has been coaching the Mexican ski team since before the Sochi Games of 2014.

"I saw it more as an individual sport and I tried to do the best for myself and the people who supported me rather than doing it for a nation."

READ: Hockey sisters to represent US and Korea

One of the Mexican team is US veteran Sarah Schleper, who has come out of retirement to race for her adopted nation after marrying Mexican Federico Gaxiola and acquiring citizenship in 2014. Schleper competed in four Winter Olympics for Team USA from 1998-2010.

In another twist, Minnesota sisters Hannah and Marissa Brandt will represent the US and the unified Korean team respectively in ice hockey in PyeongChang.

Marissa was born in South Korea and adopted by her American parents as a four-month-old before her parents conceived Hannah naturally a year later.

"I'm really looking forward to going to the opening ceremonies ... but for my sister, to see her walk in in front of the South Korean fans, I think it's going to be just an incredible experience for her," Hannah told CNN.

For Albrecht, the anthem played for the gold medalist is just a mark of "honor" and "celebration," and says it wouldn't matter to him which anthem was played.

"Most people might not understand that maybe, personally I don't get the whole anthem thing, the whole proud nation thing because I think we're all on the same planet. We need to work together, there shouldn't be any barriers," he says.

READ: Lindsey Vonn -- 'I won't be representing US president at Olympics'

But for Indian luger Shiva Keshavan national pride is everything.

The 36-year-old, from the Himalyan town of Manali, will be competing in his in sixth and final Winter Olympics for India in South Korea, but ahead of the 2002 Games he was invited to switch allegiances to Italy, land of his mother's birth.

He was offered full use of Italy's coaches and facilities in the sport, a job in the police force and eventual citizenship, but he was adamant he was staying with India despite the financial struggles and hardship of competing for a fringe Winter Olympics nation.

"For me the dream was to get the Olympics to my hometown," he was reported as saying in the New York Times. "And that was the only reason I was doing it. To show that we are also here."

Austrian skiing great Franz Klammer, the 1976 Olympic downhill champion, believes patriotism adds a whole different realm to competing at an Olympic Games.

"The pressure is enormous," Klammer told CNN Sport. "You only have one shot every four years, and you're representing your whole country, it's not just yourself so that's why it is a different dimension."

READ: 'Nobody to somebody' -- how Olympic downhill gold can change your life

American Tommy Moe, the 1994 Olympic downhill champion and super-G silver medalist, is another for whom competing for his nation was a huge motivation.

"At the Olympics you are representing your country and I think that's important, it's huge," he told CNN Sport.

"Before the 1994 Games Sports Illustrated called the US Ski Team the 'lead-footed snow plough brigade.' It kind of pissed me off. I had something to show them, and in the next issue I was on the cover."

For some athletes team uniforms are just items of clothing. For others the pride in wearing their national kit is as deep-rooted as DNA.

They are all Olympians.

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