Editor's Note: Just how difficult is it to make the U.S. Olympic team? Does it require a lifetime of training and devotion? Would an average person with an athletic background have any shot at all?
E-ticket decided to find out, embarking on a quest that's now in its second year. We tapped Kathryn Bertine, a former ice skater, professional triathlete and accomplished author, to see whether she could somehow find her way to Beijing in 2008. After failing to make the U.S. team, Bertine is now considering her other options for reaching Beijing.
My last story, posted in August, seems to have misled some of my dear readers. Can't say I blame them. After I failed to make the U.S. national team in road cycling, I expected ESPN would make me find a new sport. Instead, my editors told me to find a new country.
Half of the e-mails I received were from folks who interpreted ESPN's "request" to be impossible or humorous or ridiculous. Or all three. But certainly not serious. Find another country that will adopt you so you can represent it at the Olympics? Yeah, right. These kind, understandably confused people wished me well on the next chapter of my life, encouraging me with the hope that surely someone, somewhere would give me a job doing something. The other half of my readers -- who correctly interpreted ESPN's "request" as genuine -- wrote in with helpful suggestions on how to find another country for which I could continue my Olympic quest. Here's the breakdown:
Number of e-mails asking whether I am Jewish and could represent Israel: 43.
Number of e-mails asking whether I am Catholic and could represent Vatican City: 34.
Number of e-mails asking whether I would be willing to convert to Islam and race in a burqa: Six.
Number of e-mails asking whether I would be willing to race for various developing nations: approximately five.
Number of e-mails asking whether I would be willing race for Liechtenstein, Europe's smallest nation: 13.
Number of e-mails suggesting I race for Bermuda, Bahamas, come on Pretty Mama: 10.
Number of e-mails suggesting my British boyfriend, Steve, marry me so I could race for England: 52.
Number of e-mail marriage proposals from Serbia: One.
Number of e-mails asking that I write "Fudge" instead of "the F-bomb": One.At least the last one is something within my control.
As for marriage, British Steve is off the hook (for now), seeing as England requires a waiting period of two years before a spouse gains the right to apply for dual citizenship. My 21-year-old Serbian suitor, who assured me the older woman-boy toy relationship worked well for Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, is also off the hook (for now.)
As for the religious affiliation, I'm out of luck there. I'm neither Jewish nor Catholic, and I don't see myself converting to Islam anytime soon.
Personally, I subscribe to the religion of beliefism, and I currently attend the Church of Saint Cyclius the Divine. Anyone can join.
With marriage and religion out of the running, my only options for obtaining dual citizenship and representing another country in August -- which was now less than a year away -- were as follows:
1. Ask my parents whether they're actually retired foreign spies posing as residents of Westchester County, N.Y., and, if so, may I borrow one of their many passports.
2. Find out if Grandpa Vic was born in Europe.
3. Petition Arizona, or even just Tucson, to cede from the United States and become an independent nation. By August.
4. Cross the Canadian or Mexican border and beg for political asylum from the Bush regime.
Unfortunately, my father's French and English ancestors have been hanging around New York since the Mayflower days. That ruled out getting citizenship with France or England, as the statue of limitations on applying for nationality usually stops with the parents or grandparents. Some countries don't allow dual citizenship at all, and some silly countries require that a person be born there to be considered a citizen! Picky, picky. Where's the love? Aren't we all children of the earth? Couldn't I just represent The Planet? I called Dad.
Me: Hi, Dad. Hey, quick question: Are you an international spy?
Dad: I don't think so.
Me: Any chance I was switched at birth, or perhaps I was an illegitimate love child?
Dad: Your little pink wristband definitely said "Bertine."
Me: Damn. Any chance that you or Mom was the product of sketchy, foreign conception?
Dad: Probably not. Birth-switched illegitimates weren't too common in the 1930s and '40s.
Me: Geez, Dad, work with me here. What's mom's heritage?
Dad: She has German and Polish ancestry.
Me: Dad, was mom's father [my deceased Grandpa Vic] born in Poland?
Dad: I think he was born in Newark.
Dad: But his parents were definitely born in Poland.
Me: So I'm one-eighth Polish?
Dad: Something like that. Sweetheart, are you all right?
Me: Loaded question, Dad.
I quickly plugged Poland into Wikipedia and discovered that in the last Olympics its riders finished 27th and 42nd in a field of 62. Hmmm. Interesting. And then, a very encouraging paragraph informed me that Poland not only allows dual citizenship but has no restrictions on how far back one's Polish bloodline reaches.
And there it was. My Olympic dream, hanging by a one-eighth-inch thread, might still be alive ... except I had no idea how to get in touch with the Polish cycling federation.
"Just call Poland," British Steve said.
"What, like 1-800-POLAND?" I asked, shooting him a gee-you're-so-helpful look.
KATHRYN CHANNELS HER INNER BORAT
In the spirit of leaving no stone unturned, I tried the number anyway. Nothing. Not enough digits. OK, then ... 1-800-POLANDS. A busy signal! For a split-second of athletic paranoia, I feared the line was tied up by another American cyclist asking whether she could race for Poland. On the second call, I got through ... to a recording asking whether I'd like to chat with single women.
I guessed these women were not members of the Polish national cycling team and handed the phone to British Steve. "Here. It's for you, hon."
Steve was right, though. The idea to call Poland was a good one. Online, I found the number and e-mail address for the Polish cycling federation. Since I don't speak Polish, I tried drafting an e-mail and sending it through a Web site that does free translations. I decided to keep it short and simple.
My name is Kathryn Bertine. I'm an elite U.S. cyclist. I am writing to inquire about the possibility of racing for and representing Poland in the 2008 Olympics. I have Polish ancestry, and I would like to speak to you about dual-citizenship procedures and Polish cycling regulations.
Please let me know if this e-mail has reached you, and if I may follow up with a phone call in the coming week.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
Just before hitting send, I decided to run my translation backward -- from Polish to English -- just to make sure the text came across as somewhat coherent. Or not.
It named Kathryn Bertine. It elite AMERICAN bicycle.
It about capability to take participation quota in races. Write enquire for and introducing presents in 2008 Olympic Polish Poland. It beguiles Polish origin and would like to say about double procedures of citizenship and Polish Poland brilliance cycling regulations. It asks allow if this e-mail reaches Polish Brilliance and if It can chase you with call of phone in arrival of one week.
It thanks you for your time and consideration,
Clearly, my Boratesque e-mail was not going to work in my favor. The only thing left to do was find a Polish speaker who could call Poland on my behalf and act as my/its interpreter. As I called and e-mailed friends to see if they knew any Poles and researched ways to contact the Polish consulate, I began to get a taste of how difficult and tedious this process could be. Questions swarmed. If I could barely get in touch with Poland right now, how would it ever be possible to become a citizen in a matter of months and race for it at the Olympics? Not only that, but I was pretty sure there was no guarantee gaining citizenship gave me immediate Olympic qualification. Maybe a hundred years ago, but certainly not today. Communication, paperwork, living abroad ... could all this be done in addition to carrying a full-time training schedule and making journalistic deadlines?
And what about the moral component? I'd been so totally focused on the task of finding a country to adopt me, I hadn't even tried to deal with the problems that switching nationalities brought to the table. I wanted citizenship so I could race because it was my dream to go to the Olympics. Me me me! Yikes. That's definitely a 10 on the obnoxious scale. If I were going to race for Poland -- or any other country -- I'd have to find a way to give back. But how? There was a lot to think about.
DOING IT THE RIGHT WAY
I know some readers will consider what I'm trying to do despicable. They will see my quest for citizenship as a way of trying to worm my way into another country. They will chastise me for putting my USAness on the back burner for a shot at Olympic glory. Some will say my attempt to find a country to adopt me is un-American; or worse, Ugly American. Have I no shame? Have I no respect for my country or for the Olympics?
Actually, I've got nothing but respect for the Olympics. Look at our world -- our planet is disintegrating, war is raging, politics are corrupting, genocide is erupting, children are obesifying, disease is rampant and cures come with ruinous price tags ... and yet, every couple of years, a bunch of athletes gather around the Olympic campfire and sing "Kumbaya" for two weeks, while kicking each other's happy butts. And for what? The chance to win an olive branch halo and a glorified coaster tied to a piece of ribbon? No. For the chance to be a part of something good. Something worthwhile. Something bigger than ourselves. Something that celebrates the body rather than trying to demolish it. That's what I respect. That is what the Olympics mean to me.
If being an Olympian means being part of something internationally positive, does it really matter what country I represent? Some will say yes, patriotism comes first. Give us your tired, hungry and poor. Well, as an elite female athlete in an obscure endurance sport, I'm all three of those things -- plus, determined. If I can find foreign shores to welcome my bicycle and me, then I'm going to do it. If, through my job with ESPN and through another country, I can bring more exposure to women's cycling, I'm going to do that, too. If I just really want to see how good I can be as an athlete, can I let anything hold me back? I can't answer for everyone else, but my answer is no. Fudge no! I'm not going to break any rules. I'm not going to disgrace myself or my nation(s). I'm not going to crush anybody else's dream by taking away her Olympic opportunity. I'll find the right way to do this. I anticipate people standing in my path and trying to block my efforts. That's OK. Bring it on. I've gotten really good at U-turns.
AMUSING ENOUGH TO INTRIGUE?
After a week of trying to find a Polish interpreter, my body was sulking, my mind was spinning, and my spirits were sinking. I needed a break. Actually, what I really needed was a sign: Are you there, Zeus? It's me, Kathryn. If I'm supposed to keep hiking toward Mount Olympus, could you throw me a benevolent thunderbolt?
Later that day, the phone rang. It was my brother, Pete, who darts in and out of my life as older brothers tend to do.
Pete: Hey, K, long time since we've talked. Watcha been up to?
Me: Not much. Trying to go to the Olympics. Emigrate to Europe. You know.
Pete: Yeah. Hey, I've got this awesome new girlfriend.
Me: Oh? What's she like?
Pete: Really great. She's Polish.
A few days later, I met my brother's new girlfriend in New York. Kasia is a lovely woman who has lived in the States for 15 years, works in Manhattan and spends her free time outdoors -- running, cycling, generally keeping active. She'd been reading my articles on ESPN.com and was familiar with my quest.
"I'm happy to help," Kasia said. "What can I do?" I told her of my plan to see whether dual citizenship and racing for Poland was a possibility, and asked if she'd be willing to draft a properly translated e-mail and then to call Pawel Meszko, the head of the Polish cycling federation. Kasia agreed, and we set up a three-way call from her office.
I brought the two Polish telephone numbers I'd tracked down through the Union Cicliste Internationale Web site. The first one rang and rang, reaching no person or voice mail. As Kasia dialed the second number, I felt my stomach muscles tighten and my pulse quicken just a bit, more so with each unanswered ring. By the third ring, a disquieting realization surfaced: I was calling a person I didn't know in a country I'd never set foot in to ask whether I could become a citizen of its nation and join its Olympic team. And to top it off, I wanted this absurd request granted more than I'd ever wanted anything in my life. I wondered how long it would take for Meszko to hang up on me. The best I could hope for was that my request would be amusing enough to intrigue. I could work with intrigue. Intrigue was doable.
On the fifth ring, a voice -- a live, human voice! -- offered a salutation in Polish. Kasia engaged the voice in conversation, as I sat there listening, nervously pressing the earpiece of my phone so hard against my ear that I drifted dangerously close to the need for surgical removal. The receptionist put us through to Meszko, and I found myself with a flock of butterflies in my stomach. I couldn't decipher the chatter, so I listened to the inflection: Were those happy intonations? Angry? Annoyed? Flat and businesslike, this was a phone call void of emotion. But I also sensed it was not going poorly, for Meszko was answering Kasia's questions in full sentences. For what seemed like hours but ended up being roughly five minutes, I listened to my dream being discussed without me. The outcome of this phone call could change my future, and all I could do was sit there quietly and listen and keep tabs on my breathing pattern so I wouldn't sound like a crank caller. Finally, Kasia wrapped up the call, and offered a translation. The details were, well, not exactly cause for great optimism.
The good news was, yes, dual citizenship is allowed in Poland, though it's not very common and can take a good deal of time to procure. The clincher was the Polish cycling federation would not take steps to personally sponsor me. In other words, if I wanted Polish citizenship, I'd have to find it on my own and then go talk to the cycling federation. A tough path to navigate at this point in the game. Then, Meszko explained I'd need 100 UCI points to qualify for a spot on the Polish team, and even if I did, there were other Polish team members, all veteran cyclists, who would likely get the Olympic spots.
O ... K.
But what were these UCI points and where could I get them? All I knew is that points usually have to do with games and that I like games very much. Games and points! Oh, boy! But how do I play? I knew of one person who might just be able to answer that question.
THE MATHEMATICS OF DREAMING
Last spring, while making sure I understood the criteria to qualify for the U.S. nationals, I had called Andy Lee in the public relations department of USA Cycling. When I told him who I was he said, "I'm aware of your project." Then ... nothing, which I felt was his polite way of telling me he was aware of my existence, but, well, no comment. However, after my article on the cycling nationals came out and he saw I would not do anything to harm the sport, he warmed up to me a bit. (Poor guy, imagine working in the PR department of a sport plagued by doping scandals. Don't worry, Andy. My testosterone is a little high but completely natural.)
If anyone knew how to navigate the Olympic qualification procedures, it would be Andy. Only now, I wasn't calling to bother him about U.S. racing criteria, but to ask him if he could help me find a new country to race for. He would have no obligation to help me, and might even frown upon my efforts to find citizenship elsewhere. Nervously, I placed the call to Andy. For 70 minutes, this kindhearted man talked me through rules and regulations of international racing, downloaded documents and procedures, and metaphorically held my hand as I stumbled through complicated Web sites and race calendars. I expected this phone call to go nowhere, to be the final chapter, to have an officially informed person tell me, as a cyclist, there was nothing else I could try. I expected Andy to tell me I'd reached the end of the road in my Olympic quest.
But there, at the end of the road, just off the paved shoulder and barely noticeable to the mainstream traffic whizzing by, Andy found a path, overgrown with what-ifs and probably-nots, but a gnarly little footpath nonetheless.
Andy explained that being named to a country's national team would not automatically ensure me an Olympic berth. I'd still have to go through the process of qualifying, just like every other Olympic hopeful in the cycling world.
"That is where the UCI points come in," Andy says. "If you get on a country's national team, you have to do as many international UCI races as you can before the Olympic-points cutoff date. Some races you can simply enter, others you have to be invited to. If you do well in those races, you win points. If you gain 100 points by May 31, your country gets one spot in the Olympics." Points, levels, qualifications. Felt almost like a video game. Frogger, perhaps. But with only one life span, no reset button, and extremely real traffic.
"So if I'm the only one on my adoptive national team, and I win 100 points throughout the season, I would get the Olympic spot?" I asked.
"Yes, if you earned the 100 points and there were no other women racing for your new country, yes, you'd automatically get the spot," Andy answered.
Well, hot damn!
Andy and I looked over the UCI race calendar for 2008. A rather intimidating list of foreign names and unrecognizable words entwined themselves around cycling terms like "grand prix," "vuelta" and "tour." From Brazil to Belgium, Luxembourg to Oregon, and patches of Asia and Latin America in between, there were 27 races in which I could potentially compete. Tour of New Zealand, Tour of Belgium and the Mount Hood Cycling Classic, names I could pronounce, gave me comfort. The Omloop van Borsele, Majowy Wyscig Klasyczny> and the Drentse van Dwingeloo kind of freaked me out. Dwingeloos and Omloops sounded like things cyclists should avoid. Then again, so do tiramisu and baklava, so I decided not to be afraid. Bring it on, Omloops. I will fear no Dwingeloo.
I asked Andy how exactly the points system works in international racing. What would it take to collect 100 points competing against world-class international talent in just five months?
"There are four kinds of races on the international circuit -- 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, and 2.2," Andy explained, informing me some races offered as many as 80 points for a win down to three points for coming in 12th. I quickly scribbled down the numbers and asked Andy to speak slowly, as if I were a 4-year-old. Numbers with decimal points tend to evoke panic in me. Luckily, I didn't have to add or subtract, just look at them.
The extreme, nearly impossible upside: If some country would granted me citizenship and I could win two major races, I'd be packing my bags for China. More realistically, 80-point wins wouldn't be easy to achieve. Those races would attract hardcore European butt-kicking women in droves. With cycling being the kind of sport in which 30 riders often cross the finish line within one second of one another, point-garnering places are not easy to achieve. Despite the numbers, the odds, the chance of all this falling into place, my mind clung to one image, the path. I now understood the mathematics of my dream: new citizenship, plus 27 races, plus 4½ months, plus no teammates, plus 100 points ... equals Beijing.
Since Poland seemed like a real long shot, I decided not to put all my eggs in that one basket. That afternoon, I sat down at my computer for what would be a six-hour stretch of sending nearly 161 e-mails around the world. My plan was to contact every small nation with an official UCI men's team but without a women's cycling team, (so I would not be taking an Olympic dream/opportunity/spot away from a bona fide national citizen) -- and see whether maybe, just maybe, it wanted to start one.
On a post-it above my desk, I had scrawled the Olympic creed some months ago. Citius, Altius, Fortius -- swifter, higher, stronger. To eliminate some stress from the daunting task of country searching, I added a comma after Fortius and added the fourth-most-helpful component in striving for the Olympics: Googleius.
Up next: A nation responds to Kathryn's e-mail. But will it adopt her?
Got a question or a comment? Send them to Kathryn at: ESPNOlympian@aol.com. Kathryn is sponsored by Team Sport Beans/NTTC, TriSports.com, Trek Bicycles, and CarbBOOM.
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