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Expat athletes find new homes, new teams
08:21, August 07, 2008

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, it was Kenyans transformed into Qataris. Four years on, it's Americans becoming Russians.

US-born duo Becky Hammon and J.R. Holden will play basketball for Russia at the Beijing Games after taking out citizenship following spells with the powerful CSKA Moscow club side.

Hammon, 31, was the 2007 Women's NBA Most Valuable Player runner-up and could play against the US squad in what would be an emotional roller coaster of a clash.

"I don't expect everybody to understand," said Hammon, who currently plays for the San Antonio Silver Stars.

"I'm very proud of what America represents to the world. But this is a basketball game, not life or death. Olympic sports should be about unity, friendships and bringing the best athletes on the planet together."

Anne Donovan, the coach of the US women's team that is seeking its sixth basketball gold in the past seven Olympics, called Hammon's decision "unfathomable".

"If you play in this country, live in this country and you put on a Russian uniform, you are not a patriotic person," she said.

Point guard Holden was a basketball journeyman, carving out a career in Latvia, Belgium and Greece before ending up in Moscow eight years ago.

Holden is the first American and first black player to feature in the Russian team.

"I travel and I do everything as an American," Holden told ESPN.com last year.

"I just play basketball as a Russian. So nothing has really changed in my life outside of just playing basketball as a Russian."

He was elevated to national hero in September 2007 when he hit the game-winning shot as the Russians defeated Spain to win the European championship and earn a spot in Beijing.

He reportedly receives a free apartment and free Mercedes from his Moscow club and turned down a chance to sign with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2005.

The US is not losing all of its sporting talent.

Phillip Dutton, who helped Australia claim Olympic gold in the equestrian three-day team event at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, decided in 2006 that he was changing his nationality so he could compete for the Americans here.

"I agonized over it," Dutton said. "My parents were the big concern. I didn't want them thinking their son is a traitor."

In women's table tennis, Gao Jun, who won a 1992 Olympic silver medal for China in women's doubles, returns to the land of her birth at age 39 as a player for the US.

Gao, who gave her Olympic medal to her parents, left China in 1994 and married an American in Las Vegas while at a World Cup event.

"It was no easy decision for me," Gao said. "I felt I was missing something. Table tennis is the only thing I had in my life."

There will be no question of split loyalties when Rafed El-Masri swims for Germany, the country of his birth, rather than Syria for whom he raced at the last Olympics.

The 25-year-old was given the go-ahead to compete for Germany by swimming's governing body FINA having represented his country of origin at the Athens Olympics as well as the 2005 and 2007 World Championships.

He was crowned Asian champion in 2006 while competing for Syria and was only released by the Syrian Olympic Committee at the beginning of July to compete for Germany.

When asked whether he feels Syrian or German, he borrowed US President Kennedy's famous mantra to make his point to the Berliner Zeitung: "I am a Berliner".

Source:China Dailly/Agencies

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