Aug. 16, 2008, 10:32 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) What's in a nationality? Is it the country where you were born? Or where you live? Is it the passport you carry? The anthem you sing?

And more importantly these days in Beijing: What's in a nationality when an Olympic medal is at stake?

It's a question that has become increasingly difficult to answer in an Olympics so loaded with hyphenated athletes it can take an atlas, a lawyer and a sports historian to figure out the pedigrees of some competitors.

There's the Brazilian-Georgian beach volleyball team, the American-Russian basketball players, the Russian-American gymnast and the two New Zealand-born triathlete brothers competing for different countries (one for New Zealand, the other for the United States). There's the avalanche of table-tennis players who have left China and now dominate teams around the world.

Just how many of these nationality-shifting athletes are in Beijing is unclear. Certainly there are many dozens and possibly hundreds. The U.S. alone, for instance, has nearly 40 naturalized citizens. Experts say the numbers appear to be rising with each Olympics.

"The movement of athletes across the globe is more prevalent these days, so I do think it's going to be more commonplace" for Olympians to have multiple nationalities, said Curt Hamakawa, former director of international relations for the U.S. Olympic Committee and the director of the Center for International Sport Business at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass. "The question is how we value the country of our birth, and whether it's important that athletes compete for a country other than their birth country."

For decades, certainly, the Olympics were largely viewed through the lens of national competition. It was about the Russians and the Americans fighting an athletic front in their Cold War. It was Jesse Owens - a black man who faced discrimination at home but who still became emblematic of America - standing proud before a glowering Adolf Hitler. It was about the peaceful competitions of Canada and Britain battling it out in, say, water polo, or Alpine nations facing off in skiing.

So does an increasingly globalized world and an age of free-agent citizen-athletes mean it's time for that attitude to change?

No one is arguing, certainly, that immigration is an Olympic bogeyman. Many of the Olympians who have switched passports have done it for reasons immigrants always have - to get married, escape hardship, to find better jobs or provide better lives to their children.

And the International Olympic Committee rules are fairly straightforward: Once someone acquires a new passport, they face a three-year wait before competing for that country - unless they get waivers from their old and new countries, the IOC executive board and the sport's international federation.

But in public perception the situation is far more fluid, as all sorts of variables are debated: How long has an athlete lived in the country he or she now represents? How difficult is life in their home country? Do they have family ties to the new country?

The answers seldom please everyone. But sometimes the situation is clear.

Take Lopez Lomong, a runner who was born in Sudan, abducted at age 6 by soldiers and escaped his country's civil war only to spend a decade in a Kenyan refugee camp. He was eventually taken in by American foster parents and became a high school and college track sensation in the United States.

Now a naturalized U.S. citizen, Lomong carried the American flag at the Olympic opening ceremony.

"This guy really appreciates being an American," sprinter Darvis Patton said after Lomong was nominated by his teammates to march at the head of the U.S. contingent. "He's really honored to do it and we feel pretty good about letting him be flagbearer for us."

Then there are the more complicated cases, like Becky Hammon and J.R. Holden, American basketball players who have Russian passports from playing in professional leagues there, and now compete for the Russian Olympic teams. Or the Brazilian beach volleyball players who shopped around for new citizenship because they couldn't make their country's powerhouse squad. They ended up Georgians.

When Georgia beat Russia at beach volleyball in Beijing, a losing Russian Olympian was asked whether the match was affected by the war that had broken out between the two nations. In response, Natalya Uryadova sniffed at her opposition's national credentials.

"If they were Georgian, that certainly would have been an influence" on the game, she said at a post-match press conference. "But they are not."

Then there is table tennis, a sport where China is so dominant that scores of its players emigrate to other countries for the chance to play, instead of languishing at home on secondary teams. The phenomenon is so widespread that the sport's governing body passed a rule to stanch the flow, barring athletes age 21 or older from representing their adoptive countries in world cups and world championships. While the rule doesn't directly affect Olympic eligibility, it is clearly designed to stop China from dominating the sport.

"This rule is not against a nation, or against China as some say," International Table Tennis Federation spokesman Marius Widmer said. "It's in favor of developing table tennis" in many countries.

For the nation-switching athletes, though, these debates go beyond what matters - the chance to compete in an event many have spent their lifetimes training to reach.

"Georgia brings for me the opportunity, a very, very big opportunity," said Jorge Terceiro, a Brazilian-Georgian beach volleyball player. "Brazil has many, many teams. In Georgia it's my chance, it's now."

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AP sports writer Jimmy Golen contributed to this report.

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