How China was able to assemble a men's hockey team of mostly foreign nationals despite strict rules preventing athletes from competing for countries they are not citizens of remains "one of the most closely guarded secrets" of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.
What are the details?
Team China looks more like an international minor-league squad than a national team made up of patriotic Chinese citizens. According to the Journal, the 25-member roster boasts 17 players who were either born or grew up in North America and one from Russia.
"It’s a team made up mostly of Americans and Canadians," the outlet reported. "They play professional hockey in Russia. They are coached by an Italian. They conduct their practices in English. Yet this week, they are representing China in the men’s hockey tournament at the Beijing Olympics."
There's certainly nothing wrong with citizens from various ethnicities and heritages competing together under their home country's flag. As the global melting pot, the U.S. has done as much for decades. But this situation is starkly different.
The Journal said one of the most recognizable players on the team, Jake Chelios — the son of NHL legend Chris Chelios — confirmed that he and several other Team China teammates still have their American passports. That seems to stand in contradiction to an International Olympic Committee rule that requires competitors to be citizens of the country they compete for at the Games.
When asked by the outlet if he had renounced his U.S. citizenship and been naturalized as a Chinese citizen, Chelios, who plays under the name "Jieke Kailaoisi" in China, reportedly remarked, "I don't think we're supposed to comment on that."
The 28-year-old's father added that his son is an "American and very proud of it." But he told the Journal that when the opportunity presented itself to compete in the Olympics for China, he took it: "He wanted to play bad and I supported 100%."
The situation appears to be the result of a China taking advantage of confusion over an arcane rule in the International Ice Hockey Federation's Handbook that states a player who changes his citizenship must "prove that he has participated for at least two consecutive hockey seasons ... in the national competitions of his new country after his 10th birthday," the Journal claimed.
On top of that, there was likely some help by way of overlooking from Olympic organizers.
Chelios and many of his Western teammates — including Michigan-born goalie Jeremy Smith who is going by "Shimisi Jieruimi" in the Olympics — have played for the Beijing-based Kunlun Red Star, the sole Chinese outpost in Russia's KHL, since 2019.
Had the Westerners completed their contracts with the Red Star, they would have, under an extremely loose interpretation of the rule, qualified for China's Olympic team. However, the Journal noted, the coronavirus pandemic further complicated the situation. When China implemented strict health guidelines at the start of the pandemic, the Red Star relocated to a small town near Moscow, where the players trained and played home games until the 2022 Olympics began.
That technicality, which should've counted against the players' qualification, was apparently overlooked by the governing authorities.
According to the Journal, neither the Chinese Olympic Committee, the IIHF, nor the IOC have returned requests for comment.
Questions regarding the citizenship of U.S.-born athletes competing for China in the Games have been plenty this year. Like Chelios, popular skier Eileen Gu, a California native competing for Team China, has refused to answer whether she has renounced her U.S. citizenship.