Adopted or ancestral home?BUENOS AIRES - Felix Sanchez’s parents left the Dominican Republic in search of a better life in the United States.
The New York-born, California-raised “Super Felix,” who was by then a world-class athlete, decided in 1999 to compete for his Caribbean country of origin. He won an Olympic gold medal in Athens 2004, as well as two World Championship golds and a silver, all in the 400-meter hurdles.
Sanchez would have been just another successful U.S. athlete. In the Dominican Republic, though, he became a national icon. “I love my country,” he repeatedly says. The tens of thousands of men and women who leave their native countries each year seeking greater opportunities usually have no idea if their children will develop a talent for sports.
Yet the world of sports is full of such success stories, and often the children of immigrants decide which country they will compete for - the nation that welcomed them, or their family’s country of origin, which in many cases continues to play a major part in the athlete’s cultural heritage.
The 32-year-old Sanchez, who only recently learned to speak Spanish fluently, is grateful to the Dominican Republic, and the feeling is mutual. The baseball-crazy country reveres the man who won its first-ever Olympic gold, and the Olympic Stadium in Santo Domingo is named after him. Sanchez is one of many athletes who have chosen to compete for the land of their immigrant parents.
The parents of U.S.-born swimmer Milorad Cavic migrated to California from the former Yugoslavia. But Cavic, usually known as Mike, was competing for Serbia when he came close to spoiling the fun for U.S. swimming legend Michael Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly finals at the 2008 Olympics.
Cavic was once disqualified from a race he had won - with a European record-breaking time - for wearing a T-shirt that said, “Kosovo is Serbia.” The disqualification was later overturned.
The Turkish national football team regularly features several players who were born in Germany. Turkey midfielder Nuri Sahin, for example, turned down an offer to play for the German national team.
Jonathan Santana and Nestor Ortigoza both currently play for Paraguay, though they were born in Argentina to Paraguayan parents.
“In Paraguay they offered me the opportunity to play with the national team, and I was very glad to accept it,” Santana said.
Rio de Janeiro-born striker Kevin Kuranyi was spoiled for choices: He qualified to play for Brazil, Hungary, Panama and Germany, but chose the latter based on his father’s nationality.
Tennis star Jelena Dokic was born in the former Yugoslavia, but her family migrated to Australia when she was a child. In line with the confusion that has characterized much of her career, Dokic started out competing for Australia before switching to Serbia and Montenegro in 2001. By 2009, however, she was competing for Australia again.
Of course, it is not always the case that sportsmen compete for the country of their ancestors. Zlatan Ibrahimovic could have chosen to play for Bosnia or Croatia, but the striker picked his native Sweden instead.
The impressive French squad that won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 was built around Zinedine Zidane, who was born in Marseille to Algerian immigrants.
By the time he caught the public eye, he noted in an interview, he was not eligible to play for Algeria because he had already played for France’s junior teams.
Mario Balotelli, 19, the son of immigrants from Ghana, was informally adopted by an Italian family when he was 3. The precocious Inter Milan striker turned down an offer to play for Ghana and currently plays for Italy’s junior team.
Whatever team they choose to play for, however, the dreams of many immigrant families have already come true in the lives of these sports people: They have achieved success, money and fame, and, most importantly, the power to shape their own lives. DPA