Melting Pot Producing Gold For U.S. Foreign-Born Athletes, Coaches Are At Heart Of American Effort
“Give me your swift, your strong, your masters of the backhand, yearning to win the gold.”
When the Games are on, America’s old invitation to the wretched of the Earth takes on new meaning. That torch Lady Liberty holds so high looks like an Olympic torch. Those huddled masses of immigrants carry big-league names like Olajuwon, Seles and - Lily Yip?
Once again, immigration is a hot issue in America. Some want to narrow the Statue of Liberty’s “golden door.” But one look around the Atlanta Games the past two weeks showed that newcomers are doing what they’ve always done for this country: They’ve enriched it. They’ve energized it. They’ve given it an edge under the basket.
At 7 feet tall, Nigeria-born Hakeem Olajuwon stood out as a pillar of basketball’s U.S. Dream Team. And superstar Monica Seles, a native of Yugoslavia, carried high U.S. hopes into tennis.
But foreign-born athletes and coaches were even more important in sports - from weightlifting to field hockey - in which the United States is still working on world-class status.
President Clinton, visiting U.S. athletes in the Olympic Village, took note of the human mosaic before him.
“People see that here’s this American team, and half of them, you can’t tell where they’re from because they’re from all different kinds of racial and ethnic groups,” he told the assembled wrestlers and gymnasts, cyclists and hurdlers.
“We have learned that we have to draw strength from our diversity.”
That diversity was here for diverse reasons.
Olajuwon, who once played internationally for Nigeria, has explained matter-of-factly he lobbied for a spot on his adopted country’s Olympic team because “it is my only chance to win a gold medal.”
Some others are Olympians almost by accident.
Lily Yip, 32, a professional table-tennis player in China, emigrated to the United States in 1987 and put down the paddle to raise a family. Once she returned to club play, however, she quickly made the U.S. team.
“I feel honored,” she said. And her old friends, on China’s team here, are a little surprised. “They’re amazed that even if you’re from China, you can represent the United States,” Yip said. “They feel it could only happen in America.”
Olympic athletes must be citizens of the country they represent. But coaches can pledge allegiance to any land, and U.S. sports federations take full advantage of that international talent, in some cases snaring headline names like U.S. equestrian team coach Mark Phillips, British ex-husband of Princess Anne.
Foreigners trying to raise U.S. standards in sports dominated by Europeans and Asians include table-tennis coach Zhenshi Li, who left China in 1991; Romanian Olympic medalist Dragomir Cioroslan, who took charge of the U.S. weightlifting team three years ago; and modern pentathlon coach Jan Bartu, a one-time medalist from Czechoslovakia.
All three U.S. rowing coaches and all four canoe-kayak coaches are non-Americans. And the move of coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi from Romania to America 15 years ago still pays dividends for U.S. Olympic gymnasts.
But the emigrant athletes themselves can show the way for American-born teammates.
In field hockey, long a cellar-dwelling sport for the United States, an Egyptian and three Dutchmen, now naturalized citizens, add new elements to the U.S. eleven.
“The speed of the international game comes naturally to them,” said U.S. Field Hockey’s Marc Whitney. “It’s a great advantage for the other guys to have them on their side.”
In weightlifting, in badminton, in gymnastics, athletes who developed their skills in distant homelands have put them on display for their adopted countrymen the past two weeks - sometimes with a special flair and pride.
Reporters kept asking German-born Steffen Peters, a dressage rider for the U.S. equestrian team, whether he wouldn’t rather be riding with the high-powered German team. The 31-year-old Peters decided to give his answer last Wednesday, when he was competing in individual dressage.
Finishing his performance, Peters pulled out from beneath his topcoat a U.S. flag to wave at the crowd.
“I wanted everyone to know,” he later said, “that my heart beats as an American.”