Immigrants' pivotal role in TeamUSA's Olympic success

Immigrants' pivotal role in TeamUSA's Olympic success
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After being delayed for a year due to COVID-19, the 32nd Summer Olympics finally took place in Tokyo, Japan and featured 206 nations and approximately 11,000 athletes. The 600 athletes representing TeamUSA won 113 medals, including 39 gold — the most of any country. The United States’s resources, training facilities, coaching and athletic excellence attract top athletes from around the world, and our generous immigration system is a big part of our Olympic success story.

At least 34 of the TeamUSA Olympians were not born here, but made the U.S. their home and proudly represent this country. Thirteen hail from Europe, followed by seven from Asia, six from Africa, six from South America and two from Australia. These foreign-born athletes comprise approximately 5 percent of the U.S. delegation and represent the best of U.S. athletics in track and field, equestrian, fencing, table tennis, volleyball, water polo and 15 additional sports. These international athletes also illustrate the complexity and success of the U.S. immigration system, having taken a variety of paths to arrive in the United States and contribute to TeamUSA. 

Athletes must be U.S. citizens to compete for TeamUSA. Some were U.S. citizens at birth, having been born abroad to a U.S. citizen parent. Several were adopted by U.S. citizen parents, some came as children and other Olympians chose to make the United States their home, as their athletic ability led to scholarships and other opportunities.  

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Diver Jordan Windle was born in Cambodia, and was only 18 months old when he was adopted by a single gay father. Windle grew up in Florida and began diving at a young age. Together with his father, Jordan wrote the illustrated children's book “An Orphan No More: The True Story of a Boy: Chapter One.” Gymnast Yul Moldauer, who also was adopted, came to the United States from South Korea as an infant and grew up in Colorado.

Swimmer Jay Litherland won the silver in the men’s 400-meter individual relay. Jay was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a father from New Zealand. The family moved to the United States when he was a child, and he grew up in a bilingual household. He’s a triplet, and all three brothers swam for the University of Georgia. Catarina Macario was born in Brazil and moved to California at age 12 to play soccer. She became a U.S. citizen in 2020 and is a member of TeamUSA’s bronze-winning women’s soccer team. Gold-medal winning volleyball player Foluke Akinradewo-Gunderson was born in Canada to Nigerian parents.

Equestrian Phillip Dutton represented his home country of Australia in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics before coming to the United States and becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. Sabine Schut-Kery was born in Germany and moved to the United States to pursue equestrian. They both won silver medals as part of the U.S. dressage team.

Several of our Olympians took a military path to U.S. citizenship and the Olympics. For example, Greco-Roman wrestler Ildar Hafizov competed in the 2008 Olympics for his native Uzbekistan but moved to the United States in 2014. In 2015 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). Track and field stars Hillary Bor, Paul Chelimo and Benard Keter, all originally from Kenya, also became U.S. citizens through their military service. In a recent interview, Keter stated, "I’ll be doing this for the United States, doing it for the Army, doing it for myself, doing it for my family." Chelimo took home the bronze in the men’s 5,000-meter event.

Many other American Olympians are the children of immigrants. Notably, multi-medal winning gymnast Sunisa Lee is the first Olympian of Hmong descent. Gold medal winning golfer Nelly Korda and her sister, fellow golfer Jessica, are the U.S.-born children of Czech tennis players. Men’s gold medalist golfer Xander Schauffele is the son of a German/French father and a Taiwanese mother who grew up in Japan. Women’s 800-meter gold medalist Athing Mu is the child of Sudanese immigrants.

There are also immigrant athletes who have not become naturalized citizens – either because they are not eligible or because they have chosen not to – and cannot compete for the United States. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiary and runner Luis Grijalva competed for his native Guatemala in the 5,000-meter event. His parents brought him to the United States as a child, and he qualified for the DACA initiative that gives him protection from deportation. DACA does not provide a path to U.S. citizenship. Because of his lack of legal status, traveling to Tokyo presented difficulties because he needed prior approval from the U.S. government to leave and then return to the only country he’s ever called home.

Additionally, many international athletes who live, train and compete in the United States chose to represent their home countries in the Olympics. NBA players like Boban Marjanovic, Luka Doncic and Pau Gasol played for Serbia, Slovenia and Spain, respectively. Ugandan runner Emmanuel Kipkurui Korir, gold medal winner in the men’s 800-meter event, was an NCAA champion at University of Texas-El Paso. Canadian runner Andre deGrasse was a champion competing for University of Southern California before taking home the gold in the 200-meters. These athletes also represent the success of the U.S. immigration system because our universities, training facilities and professional leagues benefit athletically and financially from their excellence.

After waiting a year, TeamUSA triumphed at the Tokyo Olympics. Many athletes, and many countries, contributed to the success of TeamUSA, and U.S. universities and training facilities contributed to the Olympic success of other countries. As we celebrate our Olympic champions, let’s also take a moment to acknowledge the contributions of our immigrant athletes.

Michele Waslin, PhD, is program coordinator at the Institute for Immigration Research at George Mason University. She writes frequently on immigration policy and immigrants in sports. She tweets at @MicheleWaslin.