Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Under the Olympic Flag

When I imagine an Olympic athlete, I know that the person I imagine is about 99% of the time pictured under/around the flag of one of the 90 or so countries participating in the Olympic Games. When I started research for my thesis in 2012, I became aware of a group of athletes called "Independent Olympic Athletes." You may have seen them in the London 2012 Opening Ceremonies.





Source: http://www.epatoday.org/news/2012/august_2012/explaining_stateless_olympians_1992.html
There are a few different reasons why one might become an Independent Olympic Athlete. Maybe your country is new - looking at you, South Sudan - and has not yet established a National Olympic Committee (a requirement for competing in the Olympic Games). Or, maybe your country isn't a country anymore - like the dissolution of the Dutch Antilles. If your country is held to be in violation of IOC rules, the Olympic Committee can be banned- thus creating another reason to compete under the Olympic flag.

These athletes compete without nationality and the last ones to win a medal were at the 1992 Olympic Games (event: shooting). At the medal ceremony, the Olympic flag is raised and the Olympic anthem (oh, you've heard it!) played in lieu of a national anthem. There is no standard size for this group, though the trend of athletes seems to be increasing. The current global refugee crisis has led to an interesting development for the 2016 Rio Games.

Introducing...the Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes. The IOC President has declared:

“By welcoming the team of Refugee Olympic Athletes to the Olympic Games Rio 2016, we want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world,” said IOC President Thomas Bach. “Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic flag and with the Olympic Anthem. They will have a home together with all the other 11,000 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees in the Olympic Village.”

I first became aware of the ROC after seeing this story about a Syrian swimmer who may qualify for the team. Yusra Mardini has a compelling and heartbreaking story of fleeing Damascus in search of a better life. She and many other refugees may have a difficult road ahead, and the ROC is one small step towards restoring human values (for more on sport as a human right, see my previous post). Refugees do not stop being people when they leave their country and deserve the same rights as everyone else. Competing without a national flag is one way to continue to pursue the essence of the Olympic spirit.

Yusra Mardini says of her Olympic dreams: “All the athletes want to get to the Olympics. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Syrian or Olympic flag. I think I’m just going to be an athlete girl.”

Lausanne, Switzerland | Amanda Evett

6/5/16 UPDATE: The Refugee Olympic Athletes for the 2016 Games have been selected! See this page from UNHCR for more information. And yes, Yusra Mardini was selected!


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