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Earlier this month, the Puerto Rican Olympic basketball team delivered a 20-point thrashing to the latest incarnation of the U.S. Dream Team. In the aftermath, many Americans pondered this head-scratcher: How could Puerto Rico beat the United States? Isn’t Puerto Rico part of the United States?
The questions don’t end with San Juan. Puerto Rico isn’t the only American possession with Olympic dreams that don’t end with singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” American Samoa and Guam are fielding teams in Athens, and the Northern Marianas and U.S. Virgin Islands have formed national Olympic committees, though they haven’t fielded teams this year.
But one similarly nonstate portion of American soil is curiously absent from the list: the District of Columbia.
The Olympic Charter isn’t particularly precise on what bodies can form a national Olympic committee, and hence compete in the Games, as Slate magazine’s Explainer pointed out recently. The charter indicates that “the expression ‘country’ means an independent State recognized by the international community.” Whatever that means. If the Northern Marianas gets to form a committee, so does D.C. It’s that simple.
In fact, the District’s controversial quasi-colonial status could help in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Political posturing is as grand an Olympic tradition as lighting the torch and disqualifying dopers, and the Games are an unparalleled international soapbox. Unlike license-plate slogans, prime-time political-convention speaking spots, and meaningless human-rights rulings, having teams from America play teams from America’s capital is a guaranteed way to draw international spotlight to the plight of disenfranchised D.C. voters. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time the IOC stepped into a pile of political dog shit by recognizing a quasi-nonexistent nation. In 1993, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, it recognized a Palestinian National Olympic Committee, raising Israeli ire.
D.C. political gadfly John Capozzi says talk of fielding a D.C. Olympic team is hardly new; it gets casually bandied about every four years, he says, but no one in District government has embraced the issue. (Sarah Shapiro, the Foggy Bottom resident who first proposed “Taxation Without Representation” license plates, offhandedly suggested a D.C. Olympic squad in a 2000 Washington City Paper story.) “It would be a terrific way to highlight how we don’t have civil rights,” Capozzi says. But “the problem is that the government doesn’t care about civil rights.”
Indeed, early indications are that getting D.C. politicos to line up behind an Olympic team will be decathlon-difficult. Sharon Gang, a spokesperson for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, says, “It’s certainly something the mayor can think about,” but “it’s more far-fetched than other ideas.”
Those other ideas, Gang says, include a proposal to have Williams bike across the country to raise awareness of the District’s disenfranchisement. Gang also points to the mayor’s work with the National League of Cities: “that’s not as sexy as some of the other ideas…but it’s effective.”
But the fight for statehood is all about sexiness, and to Capozzi, the mayor could save his legs by re-examining his priorities: “If they put 1 percent of the amount of effort they put into getting a baseball team into getting an Olympic team, we could get it,” he says. And even if a D.C. team were rejected by the IOC, Capozzi points out that just a few D.C. athletes showing up in Beijing in 2008 would be hard for the media to ignore.
So after the D.C. Olympic Committee got recognized, filling out the team would be the next challenge. A glance at the list of athletes reveals only one current U.S. Olympian who calls D.C. his hometown: rower Aquil Abdullah. A few live in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, including triple-jumper Tiombe Hurd, 52-year-old pistol shooter Libby Callahan, and Great White Hope distance runner Alan Webb.
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But these hometown heros might not exactly jump if asked to represent D.C.: Reached in Athens after his sixth-place performance in the double sculls, Abdullah says, “I’m not sure at this point how I would handle that.” The 30-year-old Wilson High grad says D.C.’s lack of voting rights “ruffles my feathers a little bit…[but] I really don’t see the necessity for [a team].” So, barring the introduction of such events as competitive signature-gathering, lead-pipe digging, or jersey-barrier vaulting, the D.C. top-tier athletic talent pool is shallow.
But even if D.C. didn’t field a uniformly top-notch squad, there would be plenty of District athletes who could ably compete. Recently, on realgm.com, an Internet basketball message board, a fan posted a fantasy D.C. Olympic basketball team comprising current and former D.C.-area residents; managed by NBA great Elgin Baylor and coached by Georgetown legend John Thompson, the team includes such notables as journeymen Jerome Williams and Dickey Simpkins and up-and-comers Delonte West and Keith Bogans. With that lineup, Puerto Rico’s reign of Pan-American domination may be over.
In less popular sports, D.C. athletes would be just as competitive. Washington Canoe Club President Larry Schuette personally knows that U.S. teams’ high standards often shut out qualified contestants—he and his partner finished fifth in the Olympic canoe trials in 1996, missing the cut. But in that same race, they showed that their paddling chops were Olympic-caliber: “We crushed a team, just devastated [the Olympic] team from Antigua. It was just pathetic to watch,” Schuette says. “They got to go [to the Games]. I stayed home.”
The District’s lone handball team is similarly competitive: The D.C. Diplomats’ women’s team won a national championship this year, says Rajinder Bhanot, the team’s membership coordinator.
For such marginal sports as canoeing and handball, there is an added benefit: not being overshadowed by the Carly Pattersons and Michael Phelpses and other big-sport superstars. On the off chance the D.C. badminton team scored a medal, its members would be heroes to a half-million, instead of forgotten by 270 million.
And there’s another way to fill out the teams: the Malachi Davises of the world. This month, Davis, a sprinter, is living his Olympic dream in Athens. If the Davis, Calif., native, wins the 4-by-400-meter relay on Saturday, Aug. 28, he will experience the ultimate thrill in athletics: climbing the dais, receiving his medal and a laurel crown, and tearfully mouthing the words to…“God Save the Queen.”
Despite his Northern California roots, Davis has been, since last month, a British subject. Three days before Great Britain convened its qualifying trials, Davis was express-mailed a British passport. Within a week, he had a spot on the queen’s track squad, running the 400-meter sprint and the 4-by-400-meter relay.
Similarly, for 18 American baseball players, there will also be no lip-synching while Old Glory is raised high. The American baseball team failed to qualify for Athens; these players, along with five Canadians, form the core of the Greek baseball team.
But such mercenary athletes (any other term is a euphemism) are rarely welcomed with open arms. The manager of the Greek baseball team threatened to quit over the fact that only two members of the team’s 25-man roster were actually Greek natives. And Davis received plenty of grief from the British press over occupying a slot that might have gone to an actual, albeit slower, Brit.
So it’s time, then, that America’s slightly subpar athletes have a haven, a place where they can live their Olympic dreams safe from the jawing of holier-than-thou sportswriters. Here’s the plan: Overhaul the St. Elizabeths or D.C. General campus into a “National Olympic Training Center,” and bring on the mercenaries. What ties them to our city, our struggle? Not much, but little ties the rest of us here, either: The truism that Washington is a city of transients serves our Olympic movement well. What’s the difference between living in D.C. for four years as an Olympic athlete and living here for four years as a Hill staffer or diplomat?
Each national Olympic committee drafts its own criteria to lend an onionskin of credibility to its non-native athletes. Davis’ mother, for example, was born in London, making him acceptable, never mind that he never set foot in Britain until he was wooed as an athlete last month. The Greeks allowed admission to their teams to anyone who could prove a single Hellenic great-grandparent. So the D.C. Olympic Committee could draft even flimsier criteria: Athletes would have to merely (1) live here; or (2) have thought about living here; or (3) screened an episode of the Craig T. Nelson vehicle The District.
If we kept a tape of District episodes on hand, we’d have a ready pool of athletes ready to live their Olympic dreams an hour away. They wouldn’t have to renounce their American citizenship. They wouldn’t have to learn a new national anthem. (Though other songs have been proposed over the years, as far as the city is concerned, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the closest thing to D.C.’s official song.) They wouldn’t have to endure journalists’ xenophobic bloviations. They wouldn’t have to switch to the metric system. But most of all, they wouldn’t be ignored.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Emily Flake.