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Monday, February 18, 2002
Updated: February 19, 4:09 AM ET
Americans compete under different flags in bobsled

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com


SALT LAKE CITY -- Have the Olympics inspired you in any way? Do you long to compete alongside the world's finest athletes? Do you dream of marching into a sold out stadium and seeing the Olympic flame lit in front of you?

You can. And you don't even have to qualify for the U.S. team.

The Greek bobsledders, after all, are from Chicago. The Armenian bobsledders are from San Jose, Calif. The Venezuelan lugers live in Boise, Idaho. The lone athlete from Thailand teaches at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

It's a small world, after all.

How are they all doing this? Easy. Olympic loopholes allow athletes to compete for countries they've never lived in. If a parent or grandparent was a citizen of a foreign country, there is a chance you could compete for it -- just so long as you can meet the sport's minimum requirements ... and there isn't much competition back in the old country.

You won't get those cool blue USA berets, but you would get to march in the opening ceremonies, represent the country of your ancestry and take pride in the knowledge that you are an Olympian.

And if you do, you'll probably wind up at the luge and bobsled track. Because there are so few tracks in the world (there are only three in North America) training for those sports require considerable travel and can be very expensive -- just the blades of a bobsled can cost $10,000 -- many poorer nations are only too happy to allow an American to represent them.

Like John-Andrew Kambanis and John Leivaditis, who grew up in Chicago and competed for Greece in the bobsled. They receive so little funding that they would put your photo in their bobsled for $20 donations. They scraped by on so little that on the way to one competition, their car broke down and they had to pull the bobsled trailer for a mile. They finished 31st, almost six minutes behind the winning sled, but it was the trip to the bobsled run that was important, not the race down it.

"For us," Kambanis told reporters, "the Olympic dream is about achieving and overcoming and realizing a goal that becomes more than a goal, it becomes a journey."

Then there's Chris Hoeger, a junior at Centennial high school in Boise, Idaho. He's visited Venezuela only once, when he was 5 years old. Yet last week he competed for the country in the luge.

He finished 31st. And his father, Werner, finished 40th. That's right, his father. Chris is 17 and his father is 48 (the same age as Franz Klammer, as a point of reference), but for the past four years the two have been working and training together to represent Venezuela in the Olympics.

"People ask, 'Why don't you compete for the U.S.?' " Chris said, "And it's because I love my dad and it's a lot of fun to do this together and compete regardless of what the nation is."

Classmates kid Hoeger about being a traitor. A reporter wrote that they were Olympic tourists. This infuriates Werner, who points out the considerable time and money the family invested into the sport -- he estimates they spent $17,000 last year. And he points proudly to Chris, who finished ahead of nearly 40 percent of the other competitors. "If we're Olympic tourists," he said, "then 40 percent of them are Olympic tourists."

"I feel I'm legitimate," Chris said. "Yeah, I'm not really Venezuelan but I'm dang proud to be competing for Venezuela and representing the country of my father's heritage. To be able to be representing them is so amazing and I wouldn't have it any other way."

Does it sound too easy, though? Doesn't it seem like the eligibility rules should be a little stricter? Shouldn't these Olympic tourists have to at least have lived in the country they represent?

Before you answer, consider Dan Janjigian.

An American, he runs a web development company in San Jose, yet he competed in the two-man bobsled this weekend for Armenia with his good friend, Jyorgos Alexandrou, who also is from San Jose and is of Greek heritage.

Janjigian is eligible because his grandparents were born in Armenia. He was planning to compete with an Armenian weightlifter, but after the Sept. 11 attacks, the weightlifter's visa application was rejected. That forced Janjigian to recruit his good friend, Alexandrou, who was given Armenian residency so he could compete for the country once the two qualified on the World Cup circuit.

But if Alexandrou's link to Armenia is tenuous, Janjigian's isn't.

His grandmother is a survivor of the horrific but too often ignored Armenian genocide during World War I, when more than a million Armenians were murdered. Eight years old, her parents dead and posing as a Turkish refugee, his grandmother fled through Greece, then emigrated to the United States.

When Dan was born, she helped raise him, keeping her heritage so strong and alive in him that when he ran for student government in high school, his campaign slogan was "Vote for Dan -- He's Armenian."

"Growing up, people wouldn't know what Armenia was," he said. "They'd ask me, 'What is Armenia? Is it a dance? Is it a food?' They don't teach about Armenia in school. It's tough growing up and hearing stories about the Holocaust in school and being taught nothing about what happened in Armenia in 1915 or my country or my language.

"For me, that's what's great about competing in the Olympics for Armenia. When people write stories about me, they'll be writing about Armenia."

Janjigian and Alexandrou finished 27th in the bobsled and could not contain their excitement when they crossed the finish line. Although he was not so excited that he wasn't able to point out to his father in the stands that he was holding the Armenian flag upside down.

"It was awesome seeing so many Armenian flags," Janjigian said. "I know my grandmother is sitting at home watching this. I was thinking about that on the track. And it was so special to be able to share that.

"I called her last night and she was telling me how she was going to watch us on TV and how proud she was. She's 94 years old. She's four-foot-eleven. She stoops over when she walks. When it came to the opening ceremony, she stood up. She said, 'I'm standing up when Armenia walks in.' "

So, of course, this Olympic tourist belongs here, even if he lives half a world away from the country he represented. Janjigian didn't come close to standing on the medals platform but he did something more important. He made a 94-year-old woman stand with pride for the country of her birth.

And if there is any better reason for a San Jose Web site developer competing for Armenia, I would like to hear it.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.