Just the facts: Verzbicas must be U.S. citizen to compete for USA at Olympics

Triathlon eligibility rules don't apply at Olympic Games

Lukas Verzbicas with his gold medal at the 2011 World Junior Triathlon Championships. (Courtesy USA Triathlon)

Lukas Verzbicas with his gold medal at the 2011 World Junior Triathlon Championships. (Courtesy USA Triathlon / December 16, 2013)

It's time to clarify the situation about Lukas Verzbicas' eligibility for the 2012 Olympics.

Verzbicas, 18, is a citizen of Lithuania who has lived in the United States more than half his life and has applied for U.S. citizenship, but it seems unlikely he will get it before the 2012 Olympics.

In a profile last June and two stories last week after he left both running and the University of Oregon to pursue a career in triathlon, I wrote Verzbicas needed citizenship to represent the United States at the 2012 (or any) Olympics.

I based that statement on Rule 41 of the Olympic Charter, "Nationality of Competitors," which says in paragraph 1:

"Any competitor in the Olympic Games must be a national of the country of the NOC (national Olympic Committee) which is entering such competitior."   

That sounded pretty clear.

But when two deservedly respected track and field experts -- Toni Reavis and Dave Monti - suggested in blogs that Verzbicas had left running partly because he already was eligible to compete as a non-citizen for the United States in triathlon at London next summer, I thought it would be worthwhile to see if there were any chance that could be true.

The fact is the answer is no.

I learned that by asking International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams these two questions:

1.  Does Rule 41 (1) supersede any international federation rule?

2.  Under all circumstances, must an Olympic athlete be a citizen of the country he or she wants to represent?

"Rule 41 is pretty straightforward," Adams replied Tuesday by email.  "An athlete must be a citizen of the country he or she wishes to represent.

"Further, the rule goes on to explain how a competitor may go on to represent a `new' country if they change nationality or how they may represent a country if they have dual nationality, underlying the basic fact that one must be a national of the country they represent."

And here are some more facts.

The source of the confusion is the International Triathlon Union allowing athletes to compete in ITU events for "Country A" even if they are not a citizen of "Country A," as long as they have not previously competed for another country.  That is why Verzbicas was eligible to compete for the United States at the last two World Junior Championships, in which he took fourth (2010) and first (2011).

The issue is further complicated because different international federations have different rules.

For instance, half-miler Wilson Kipketer, a native and citizen of Kenya, won the gold medal at the 1995 World Championships for Denmark but was unable to compete for Denmark in the 1996 Olympics because his Danish citizenship process was not complete.  Kipketer went on to win Olympic silver (2000) and bronze medals (2004) as a Dane.

The international track federation since has changed its rules to require every athlete in its own global competitions to be a citizen of the country he or she represents.

At the moment, the only country for which Verzbicas could compete at the Olympics in any sport is Lithuania, and that is not his intention.

His immigration attorney, David Richmond told me last June it was not a question of whether Verzbicas gets citizenship but when.  He declined to provide an exact timeline but confirmed Verzbicas has a green card.

The process would need to be expedited by Congress -- it normally takes five years after receipt of a green card, which means permanent resident -- for Verzbicas to be a citizen before the 2012 Olympics.

That could be done under U.S. immigration law that allows employment-based immigration to "individuals who because of their exceptional ability in the sciences, arts or business will substantially benefit prospectively the national economy, educational or cultural interests or welfare of the United States. . ."

That exception has been invoked for athletes, including ice dancer Tanith Belbin. Belbin received U.S. citizenship a year early so she could skate for the United States at the 2006 Olympics, where she and partner Ben Agosto won a silver medal.  But Congress generally is disinclined to enact private bills for the acceleration of citizenship.

Of course, this whole discussion puts the cart way ahead of the horse, since Verzbicas has yet to prove he can do well enough in senior triathlon events -- twice as long as junior races -- to earn one of a possible three U.S. spots in the 2012 Olympics or in 2016 or any future Summer Games.

And I do suggest you read Reavis' blog because its main point is compelling: that Verzbicas' decision to dump running for triathlon makes a statement about the state of the two sports.

USA Triathlon chief executive Rob Urbach made that point in a different way when he said, "Lukas' decision speaks volumes about how far triathlon has advanced."

While track and field is running in place.

CHICAGO

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