Words from the Wise: Switching countries and changing teams

Every country is pinching athletes from other countries.

Dale Begg Smith 88 (photo credit: )
Dale Begg Smith 88
(photo credit: )
I wrote in my column last week that Australia winning a gold medal at the Winter Olympics was like Switzerland having a world champion surfer. (This notwithstanding the fact that the Swiss are the current America's Cup champions.) Well lo and behold, not long after I wrote that, Australia won a gold medal in the men's moguls. To be exact, he was a Canadian who switched national allegiances to Australia six years ago when he was having some problems with Team Canada. The response to Dale Begg Smith's victory was muted, which wasn't really fair seeing how Australia has opened its arms in the past to foreign athletes such as tennis player Jelena Dokic as well as a host of soccer players. In any event, every country is pinching athletes from other countries. Ice dancer Tanith Belbin is only competing for the US because President Bush signed a special act of Congress just six weeks ago. Sen. Carl Levin and US Rep. Thad McCotter, both of Michigan, shepherded legislature through Congress that allowed Belbin to become a citizen. This is not a new phenomenon; England has been naturalizing athletes for years and did so especially during South Africa's apartheid era. The most famous South African-cum-English athlete would be long-distance barefoot runner Zola Budd, who switched her allegiances to Great Britain just in time for the 1984 Summer Olympics. In one of the Olympics' most infamous moments, Budd had a collision with pre-race hometown favorite Mary Decker, a collision from which Budd never really recovered. Fans seem to have less problem with athletes when they switch their national allegiances than they do when they switch teams. Boston Red Sox fans are still up in arms about favorite son Johnny Damon turning his back on Beantown for all places, the evil empire, New York Yankees. The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry may be hot but it is not as intense as that between Spanish soccer giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. When Portuguese star Luis Figo switched from Barca to Real, he was showered with bottles, lighters and a pig's head. Fans were livid and upset wondering how he could betray them. Response was similarly fiery when Mo Johnston signed for Glasgow Rangers from Celtic and Sol Campbell moved from Tottenham to Arsenal. FANS SHOULDN'T be upset when players switch teams. In their everyday lives, they move from one law firm to another or one advertising agency to another. So why shouldn't athletes have the same privilege to support themselves and their family? Fans tend to get a bit too possessive when it comes to their team and the players on it and it is typically the case that players are far less into sport than the people in the stands. One person who recently came back from the stands is John McEnroe, who teamed up with Jonas Bjorkman to claim the doubles title at the SAP Open over the weekend. Doubles in tennis has been going through a bit of a rough time and the "Doubles Revolution" is what the ATP has come up with in order to jazz things up and inject some excitement into it. The major changes are the abandonment of a third set for a match tiebreaker and the elimination of deuce for a sudden death point. But if the 47-year-old McEnroe can win a title, what does that say for the strength of the competition? Granted, McEnroe is arguably the best doubles player of all time and his partner was no mug either, with eight Grand Slam titles to his name. Interesting point that up to last weekend McEnroe has 77 singles and 77 doubles titles to his name. At one stage, he was the world's number one player in both singles and doubles. That, though, is a relic of the past. The world's best singles players don't play doubles. And the opposite is also true as doubles players tend to focus on doubles. Israelis Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich are 12th in the ATP doubles race, but Ram is 811th in the singles rankings and Erlich does not even appear because he has no rankings points playing on his own. Maybe if the ATP can convince big names like Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal to take up doubles, interest in it would rise.