Admittedly, I didn’t recognize the flag of Dominca when I saw it waving at the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. I did recall that Dominica is a small Caribbean island nation and that was about it. The man waving the flag did not look Caribbean. But the world is a beautiful mix of peoples, and race does not tell one’s full history. The event in which he would compete, cross country skiing, isn’t a Caribbean sport. Yet, Jamaica had famously produced a bobsled team that won the hearts of the world, even if it won no gold. When the commentators noted that the man carrying the flag wasn’t actually Dominican, I was curious. They went on to explain that Gary Di Silvestri has no direct link to Dominican ancestry. Rather he is a Staten-Island born, Georgetown/Cornell educated investment banker who blessed Domica with a little philanthropic benevolence. For this he was awarded citizenship. The rest is Olympic history.
Dominica is a small island nation. Unlike many of its more famous neighbors, Dominica is not blessed (or cursed depending on your perspective) with tourist-attracting idyllic beaches. It does however have hot springs, water falls, lush tropical forests and thankfully a national park system to try to protect these treasures. This is terrific for the natural environment and wildlife, but essentially useless to a country’s growth percentage. A nation will make money where it can. The Commonwealth of Dominica does so, as many of her neighbors, by offering tantalizing tax havens where accounts are officially sealed from outside eyes. They also offer economic citizenship to those seeking a valid second passport. For a cash contribution, Dominica will waive the 7-year residency requirement to gain citizenship. This costs $105,000 for a single applicant. Tack on another $25,000 for a spouse or dependents. This allows the Dominican “citizen” to travel to around 90 other nations and territories without a visa. This is just the sort of benefit that would appeal to the kind of people who feel the need to seek tax havens in the first place. Dominca has specifically designated Government Approved Economic Citizenship agents to help clients, or soon-to-be citizens, with all the paperwork.
This is likely the sort of philanthropic outreach that garnered di Silvestri his Dominican citizenship. It likely required deeper philanthropic passion to secure the title of Olympian. Although, di Silvestri claims the Dominca Olympic Committee approached him and his wife, knowing they were cross-country skiers and apparently the best Domincan snow-sporters in the world to represent their country. Granted, di Silvestri and his wife must be able skiers; they did have to qualify to compete after all. However, this pay-to-play approach seems to undermine the meaning of the Olympics. Before one can carry the flag of a nation in the Olympics, one must carry the flag in their hearts. That is not to say there is no room for immigrants in national sports. Countries like the U.S. and Canada would not be the winter Olympic powerhouses they are without immigrant national athletes. These athletes worked hard in the nations they came to represent.
Of course there are occasional situations where there is an athlete who plays the official citizenship card to represent a smaller country with a conveniently less dense pool of competition. More often than not, there is a family connection. The Briton who chooses to represent Egypt where he/she or his/her parents were born, as just one example. Gary di Silvestri’s Olympic scheme is something else entirely. It is in particularly poor taste because, at its essence, it is a rich guy taking advantage of a poor country to boost his own interests.
In a way, it is like modern global economics itself. Wealthy bankers boosting their bottom lines on the backs of the browbeaten. This pay-to-play reality also embodies, more and more, the Olympics as a political power. The oligarchs of Russia have the cash to finance the games and subsequently to silence, or at least marginalize any critics. The rest of the world for the most part looks the other way, because after all everyone is going to benefit from this little quadrennial banquet.
There has developed a disconnect between Olympians and Olympics. As the Olympics as a corporate machine becomes increasingly corrupt, the Olympians themselves still represent the best of who we are and what we can achieve through hard work and fair play. Di Silvestri undercuts this balance and puts the athlete square on the side of the opportunistic corporation.