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Recruiting foreign athletes: how far will countries go to win gold?

18 June 2014 Taylor & Francis

Labour migration is a significant factor in today’s economy as many people live and work outside their country of birth, including elite athletes who seek employment around the world. However, are some countries taking advantage of this migration to attract elite athletes to compete in the Olympic Games?

A unique study published in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, titled  ‘Investigating the global productivity effects of highly skilled labour migration: how immigrant athletes impact Olympic medal counts’ by Jonathan Horowitz & Stephen R. McDaniel (University of Maryland), is the first known investigation into the impact that worldwide migration has had on the Olympic games. Many people believe that foreign athletes are being ‘recruited’ by countries to improve their medal count. Although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has voiced concern, they have not explored the impact that migration is having on medal counts within the Olympic Games.  Horowitz and McDaniel examine how the labour migration of highly skilled athletes has impacted on the medal counts at the Summer Olympics since 2000 and discuss the implications this may have on IOC policy.

The authors compared the country of birth of medal-winning athletes at the Summer Olympics in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 to the country for which the athlete won the medal. It was found that the percentage of medal winners who are immigrants is significantly higher than percentage of the world population who are international migrants. Furthermore, one out of every ten medal winners in the games were not competing for the country in which they were born, and the countries which won more medals on average had a higher number of non-native medal winners than countries that featured exclusively native-born athletes.  

These findings indicate that foreign athletes have a significant impact on medal count at the Olympic Games and the authors further suggest that the number of immigrants competing for a country is correlated to medal count at the Olympic Games. This highlights the challenges that immigration presents to current IOC policy and indicates that the IOC needs to increase their understanding of the impact that migration has had and will have at future Olympic Games. The results of the current study also have broader implications for labour migration researcher in general as sport offers an opportunity for researchers to track the mobility of individuals and their productivity, in a manner that is extremely difficult in many other labour contexts.

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