Jacque Rogge, president of the IOC, expressed reservations earlier this week about athletes switching nationalities (speaking at the end of a meeting of the IOC Executive Board, which agreed to allow a switch for two athletes, one Cuban and one German, who will now be allowed to compete for the British team): ‘You have those athletes where there is support for them but they go to another country because there is a bigger gain to be made. Legally we cannot stop this but it does not mean we love it’.
There are ancient parallels for athletes switching citizenship. It was easier to do—it didn’t need a two-day meeting of the IOC Board: victorious athletes could choose which city to dedicate their victory to. Switching could sometimes lead to an angry response from the athlete’s home city, which lost out on sharing in the glory of victory. The work of the travel writer Pausanias, who visited the Olympic site in the second century AD, is packed with examples, including the following:
- ‘Astylos of Croton…in three successive Olympiads won victories in the stadion (200 metres) and the diaulos (400 metres). But because on the last two occasions he proclaimed himself a Syracusan, in order to please Hieron the son of Deinomenes [i.e. tyrant of Syracuse], because of that the people of Croton for this condemned his house to be a prison, and destroyed his statue’ (6.13.1).
- ‘Sotades, for his victory in the long-distance race at the ninety-ninth Olympiad, was proclaimed as a Cretan, which is what he was. But at the next festival he made himself an Ephesian, having taken money from the Ephesians, and the Cretans punished him with exile for that’ (6.18.6).
But it’s hard to find any ancient evidence for criticism of the idea of switching, or any sense that it would have attracted disapproval within the city that benefited (as it clearly does now, judging by some of the recent headlines on this in the British media). In fact many of the sources we have talk about it instead in quite matter-of-fact terms, in contrast with Pausanias’ more sensationalistic version. (Obviously there are hints of disapproval in those Pausanias passages, in the detail of money changing hands, but it’s worth remembering that he is writing about events in the distant past, more than 500 years before, which arguably makes him a less reliable witness…)
There’s a nice example in a victory list celebrating the festival of the Romaia in the city of Xanthos in Lycia, in what is now southern Turkey, dating from the late second or early first century BC (SEG XXVIII, 1246). There are hundreds of victory inscriptions like this one surviving from the extensive ancient festival calendar—like this one they often celebrate the geographical diversity of the competitors, from many different parts of the Mediterranean world.
It translates as follows:
In the presidency of Andromachos son of Andromachos son of Andromachos from Xanthos, these men have won in the contest of the Romaia, established by the confederacy of the Lycians:
Among the flute players: Theogenes son of Apollogenos, from Sardis;
Among the lyre players: Pythion son of Pythion from Patara;
The prize for singing to the lyre I dedicated at the altar of Rome because the competitors were disqualified;
The boys’ long-distance race: Glaukos son of Artapatos from Patara;
The boys’ stadion (approx. 200 metres): Menephron son of Theophanos from Ephesus;
The boys’ diaulos (approx. 400 metres): Poseidonios son of Ktesippos from Magnesia on the Maiandros;
The youths’ stadion: Nikandros son of Nikandros from Argos;
The youths’ wrestling: Miltiades son of Xenon from Alexandria;
The youths’ boxing: Pateres son of Diodoros from Philadelphia;
The men’s long-distance race: Aristokritos son of Charixenos from Argos;
The men’s diaulos: Aristokritos son of Charixenos from Argos;
The men’s stadion: Antiochos son of Menestratos from Myra…
—and so on, for 50 lines or so in all.
Lower down, in the list of horse-racing victories, we find the following:
The chariot race: Gaius Octavius Pollio, son of Gaius, a Roman, who proclaimed himself a Telmessian.
Telmessos is a local Lycian city. It gets to share in the glory of Pollio’s victory through his expression of allegiance. Presumably it would have honoured Pollio in return. (It’s interesting to see a Roman athlete involved at all here, at a festival in honour of Rome—that’s a sign of how closely Rome was integrated into Greek athletic culture even at quite an early stage in Greco-Roman relations).
It was also common for athletes to be given citizenships in honour of their victories after the event, often by the cities in which those victories were won. Another example, from the second century AD (from Robert, Hellenica VII: 105-13):
Marcus Aurelius Antonius Lucius, citizen of Smyrna and
Athens and Ephesos and Pergamon and Kyzikos and Sardis and
Miletos and Sparta, and citizen and councillor of other cities
having won victories in the contests listed below, the first and only
man to do so [i.e. to achieve this particular combination of victories]: in Smyrna, the great
Hadrianic Olympics, in the men’s and boys’ age categories,
three times in a row, in Athens, the Olympics in the boys’ category…
in Ephesos the Barbilleia in the boys’ category… etc. etc.—with a long list of other victories following.
None of this means that citizenship didn’t matter for ancient athletes—clearly it was enormously important, as it is now, in fact probably a lot more so. The difference is that it’s harder to find idealistic objections to the concept of switching and accumulating citizenships in ancient culture. That difference may be partly just because granting citizenships, as a way of honouring powerful people, was much more common in ancient culture generally than it is for us. Also perhaps because ancient culture was more ready to accept that the pursuit of personal profit and honour was a legitimate goal for sportsmen (as we do also outside the context of Olympic sport). That stands in contrast with the traces of the old amateurist Olympic ideology in Rogge’s complaint: ‘You have those athletes where there is support for them but they go to another country because there is a bigger gain to be made’.