Asia Rugby Olympic Sevens Qualifier

Passport eligibility rule raises conundrum for players

Giving up citizenship to represent Hong Kong in rugby sevens is a difficult decision

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 12:57am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 June, 2015, 3:37pm

What would you give up for your career? Sportspeople are known for making sacrifices to chase their dreams, but those yearning to represent Hong Kong in rugby sevens and do not hold a Hong Kong passport face a difficult decision: renounce their native citizenship or retire to the bench.

A HKSAR passport will be mandatory at the Asian Games in September, for next year's regional qualifiers for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and, of course, the Games.

This rules out almost half of the 24 men and women who played for Hong Kong at the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens three weeks ago and threatens to derail the region's Olympic ambitions for the sport.

It comes down to the question: how much are you willing to sacrifice? If it was a matter of the Olympics, I’d give it up in a heartbeat … but for now, I’m just not sure
Colleen Tjosvold

Acknowledging every non-HKSAR passport holder's decision is different depending on their nationality, but the head of technical development and performance at the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, Dai Rees, believes the choice is nevertheless straightforward.

"Players want to maximise their opportunities to play for Hong Kong … it's not a question really," he says.

But for a handful of players, the decision is far from easy. For Americans, renouncing citizenship is irrevocable.

For those young and uncertain of their future, giving up the citizenship of their birth means potentially losing the ability to live and work near families in the future.

And for the Hong Kong women - now ranked fourth in Asia and for whom it will take hard work and a miracle for their 2016 Olympic dreams to come true - it could be all for nothing.

"I think about it every day," says Colleen Tjosvold, 24, who lives and trains full time as part of the women's sevens team at the Hong Kong Sports Institute.

Although a Hong Kong resident for 21 years with a Chinese mother, Tjosvold was born in Canada when her mum was considered "settled abroad".

If she wishes to play in the Asian Games, she has no option, but to renounce her Canadian citizenship, become a Chinese national and then apply for a passport.

Then if she wants to reclaim her Canadian citizenship, she faces a lengthy naturalisation process and must secure a visa to live and work in her place of birth.

"It's a permanent decision," she says. "If I'm honest, I've given up so much already … my home, my job ... it comes down to the question: how much are you willing to sacrifice? If it was a matter of the Olympics, I'd give it up in a heartbeat … but for now, I'm just not sure."

To qualify for the 2016 Rio Games, Hong Kong's teams will either have to finish first in Asia or win a final repêcharge tournament against the remaining top-ranked teams.

While the opportunity to be the first-ranked Asian men's team is within reach for Hong Kong, it will be hard work for the women.

Although those accepting contracts with the HKSI are not required to apply for a local passport, it is a condition they are "at least able to prove their eligibility", says Rees.

He understands those eligible have taken steps to apply, while those within sight of permanent residency - such as Nick Hewson, Lee Jones and Ben Rimene - will be able to apply for Chinese citizenship once they obtain permanent residency.

"We've had success with a number of players obtaining HKSAR passports last year, including the McQueen brothers [Tom and Alex], Rowan Varty and Mark Wright," says Rees.

Canadian Christine Gordon is one player who has begun the process, but is still doubtful whether she will cut ties with her motherland for the sake of her sport. "I'm still not completely sure … but I figured I'd apply for citizenship and if I get accepted then make the decision."

Gordon, 35, gave up teaching and took a significant pay cut to pursue a full-time rugby career last August

"It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I'm at an age where it won't come again."

When American Natasha Olsen-Thorne renounces her US citizenship, she will not have the same options as Canadians Gordon and Tjosvold to renaturalise as the decision is final.

Yet the powerful, young try scorer against eventual winners Canada at the women's sevens tournament is undeterred and has begun the process.

"I really want to play rugby and I want to play rugby for Hong Kong," says the 21-year-old, who has applied for her HKSAR passport. "It's logical for me to take that step. For me, this is a dream job … I would be bored out of my mind sitting in an office."

Flanker Amelie Seure, 30, from France, known affectionately as "Frenchie", and centre Lindsay Varty, 25, have also submitted their applications.

Although Seure confesses she is sad to give up her French citizenship, she will always remain "French at heart" and is prepared to make the decision for her sport.

"For me, Hong Kong is rugby. I've had all my opportunities in the sport here and I wouldn't be where I am without Hong Kong."

Seure moved from France nine years ago as a talented handball player before transitioning to rugby, where she quickly progressed and was selected for Hong Kong after only three years.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I don't know what the future holds and whether that's in Hong Kong, but I'm confident in Hong Kong," she says.

"It's worth it, even to just have the opportunity to play for the Olympic qualifiers [the repêcharge match]," she says.

Plus, Seure acknowledges the opportunity for her to reclaim her citizenship is much easier than for some of her teammates.

An enthusiastic Varty, meanwhile, is looking forward to joining her brother, Rowan, by having a local passport. "My brother got his a few years ago, so hopefully I'll be able to get mine, too, but we will have to wait and see."

With the entire citizenship and passport process taking around three months, Rees is hopeful players' passports will be approved ahead of the Asian Games, which is fewer than five months away.

If that does not work out, Rees pointed to contingency plans, including making an appeal to the secretary of the Olympic Council of Asia to allow players who have previously been eligible and in past games - such as Jamie Hood and Olsen-Thorne - to play.

Women's coach Anna Richards believes the loss of players such as Gordon, Olsen-Thorne, Seure, Tjosvold and Varty, will not affect her team's chances at the Asian Games.

"Of course, I'd hate to lose any of my players, but sometimes that happens … you just have to roll with the punches," she said.