America's biggest 2018 exports: Planes, cars ... winter Olympians

Seun Adigun is the team leader and driver for the Nigerian bobsled team. She also happens to be from the United States. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Seun Adigun has heard it more than once, has heard the questions about passports and birthplaces and patriotism and identity. So at this point, her answers are fairly straightforward:

Yes, she was born in the United States. Yes, she went to college in the United States. Yes, she lives in the United States and works in the United States and trains in the United States. Yes, she loves the United States.

And yes, she competes for Nigeria.

"We can never forget what we were raised as, and what our parents were raised as," said Adigun, who is the driver for the Nigerian women's bobsled team at these Winter Games. "If wasn't for the country of Nigeria, we wouldn't have our entire families."

It is a sentiment easy enough to understand. And Adigun and her teammates are far from unique at these Olympics: They are the Nigerian bobsledders from Houston, but there is also the Filipino skier from Oregon, the Singaporean short-track speed skater from Edmonton and the Ecuadorian cross-country skier from Australia, among others. With each passing Olympics, the number of non-native athletes competing seems to increase and -- perhaps not surprisingly -- the United States is the biggest supplier of these so-called Olympic exports.

According to a pre-Olympics study by the global firm CapRelo, there are at least 178 non-native Olympians at the Pyeongchang Games, or about 6 percent of all the athletes here. At least 37 of those came from the United States, the study showed, the most athletes "lost" of any country at the Games. (Exact numbers are difficult to compile with athletes often moving or changing their bases.)

In terms of the legality of all this, there are a series of Olympic rules in place regarding athletes switching the country they represent, though in most cases Olympic exports either have dual-citizenship or have been naturalized as citizens of their chosen nation (often through a fast-tracked process that is approved by the government).

And while the questions to athletes competing for less-than-obvious countries are often similar ("Wait, why aren't you competing for [fill in the more obvious country here]?"), the sports involved run the gamut.

Among the Americans competing for other nations at this Olympics, there are: an M.I.T. grad from Brookline competing for Israel in skeleton; a Duke doctoral student from North Carolina on the Korean women's hockey team and a former American Olympic skier from Colorado now whizzing down the mountain for Mexico.

Each export has a story with their own set of circumstances. Some link their Olympic choice to family heritage or personal connections to a particular country, while others have allegiances based simply on sporting need (no bloodlines or ancestry involved).

For example, South Korea -- as the host country for the Games -- automatically qualified a team for each event. To help strengthen their chances in sports with low participation (and avoid embarrassment in front of home fans), the South Korean Olympic federation followed in the footsteps of previous hosts and sought out strategic reinforcements by naturalizing selected athletes from other countries.

How widely did Korean officials shop? Nineteen of the 144 members in its delegation are from other countries, including hockey players from the U.S. and Canada, a biathlete from Russia and a luger from Germany.

Park Dong-hee, a spokesman for the Korean Olympic Committee, was pragmatic in explaining these naturalizations to reporters last year. "As the host country of the Pyeongchang Olympics, we have to perform at a certain level," he said.

Some Olympic exports are household names --Vic Wild, say, who made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the American snowboarding association, gained Russian citizenship and then won two gold medals at the Sochi Games -- but the majority reside farther from the spotlight.

Charles Flaherty, a 17-year-old who was born in Cincinnati, is skiing for Puerto Rico at these Games. That unlikely arrangement -- neither of his parents have any ancestral connection to the island -- became possible because Flaherty's parents moved the family to Puerto Rico eight years ago.

Part of the reasoning for the move was a professional opportunity for Flaherty's father, but much of it, Flaherty's mother, Ann, said, was due to the family looking for a fresh chapter after enduring a harrowing period where Flaherty's younger brother, William, required a bone-marrow transplant to survive a grave immune-system disorder. (Flaherty was the donor and William is doing just fine now.)

"It turned us into this carpe diem family," Ann Flaherty said in an interview. "Then, during the Sochi Olympics, we were watching the skiing on TV and Charles said, 'Hey, I think I'd like to try to do that.' We just grabbed it and ran."

The Flahertys had always been a skiing family, frequently vacationing in Colorado, and Charles was always talented. After doing some research, they found that Puerto Rican residency can be acquired after three years of living on the island and began the process. Fast forward to last week and -- after making it through an intense qualifying process -- Flaherty carried the Puerto Rican flag in the Opening Ceremony here.

Ann Flaherty said people generally react well when they hear that Flaherty is an Olympian (but not for United States), though there are always some who question the validity of the choice. Still, when Charles is asked the inevitable question -- would you compete for the U.S. if you could? -- his answer is always firm.

"He says no," she said. "He says, 'Puerto Rico is my home.' And for him, it really is."

Isadora Williams, who was born in Georgia, raised in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and attends Montclair State in New Jersey, said she competes for Brazil as a figure skater because "my mother is Brazilian and we have family, friends and traditions in Brazil as well as the U.S."

She added, though, that she and others do not see sports as "deeply political," essentially saying that any angst people might have over what country an athlete represents is misplaced.

Would she have enjoyed representing the United States if she had been given the chance? It would have been "pretty cool," she conceded, but that does not mean there isn't meaning in what she is doing with another country that is important to her.

In her mind, she feels a connection to Brazil, and that is what matters most.

"As a 12-year-old, it seemed so cool to represent a country that doesn't have much of a winter sports tradition," she said. "I still feel the same at 22."