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Doing it for themselves: being an Independent Olympic Athlete

One of the delights of watching the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games was the spontaneous dance routine and joyful celebration of the Independent Olympic Athletes. Images and videos of…

They’ve got no official country, but they don’t seem to mind. EPA/Kerim Okten

One of the delights of watching the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games was the spontaneous dance routine and joyful celebration of the Independent Olympic Athletes. Images and videos of their entry into the arena have gone viral and left many wondering who and what these Independent Olympic Athletes are.

Athletes competing at the Olympic Games (both summer and winter events) must be affiliated with their National Olympic Committee (NOC). However there have been times in recent history where nations have been dissolved or new nations have emerged due to political transition, or international sanctions have left athletes without a formal nation or NOC.

It’s not much worse than most national anthems.

Rather than these athletes missing out on the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has established the category of Independent Olympic Athletes. Independent Olympic Athletes compete under the Olympic Flag. Should they win a gold medal at their event, the Olympic anthem will be played.

We first saw Independent Olympic athletes at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, where athletes from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Macedonia competed as Independent Olympic Participants. Macedonian athletes could not appear under their own flag because their NOC had not been formed. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) was under United Nations sanctions which prevented the country from taking part in the Olympics.

Netherland Antilles spooner427/Flickr

Fifty-eight athletes competed as Independent Olympic Participants, winning three medals. In addition, 16 athletes competed as Independent Paralympic Participants at the 1992 Paralympics, winning a total of eight medals. At the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, four athletes from our close neighbour Timor Leste (East Timor) participated as Individual Olympic Athletes during their nation’s transition to independence, with a further two athletes participating in the Paralympics.

This year at the London 2012 Olympic Games, four Independent Olympic Athletes are scheduled to compete. They are from the former Netherland Antilles (three athletes) and from the newly formed state of South Sudan (one athlete).

The Netherlands Antilles was dissolved in 2010; however qualifying athletes from the former Netherlands Antilles were permitted to participate as Independent Olympic Athletes, or could choose to compete for Aruba or the Netherlands, as they have Dutch nationality. The three athletes from the former Netherlands Antilles are Phillipine van Aanholt (sailing), Reginald de Windt (judo) and Liemarvin Bonevacia (athletics).

South Sudan United Nations Photos

Guor Marial, from South Sudan, will also be competing in the marathon as an Independent Olympic Athlete, as South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan last year. Marial could have run for Sudan, but did not wish to represent the country he fled. He reportedly lost 28 family members to violence or sickness during the civil war that compelled the south to split away from Sudan.

As the world around us continues to change, borders shift and new nations grow; it is heartening to know that all athletes, including those without a nation, have the opportunity to take their place at the Olympic Games.

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Marilyn Andrew


    You learn something new everyday I didn't know this. The Olympic movement does have a heart after all.

  2. Diana Taylor

    retired psychotherapist

    All of which goes to show how national boundaries (and therefore national pride) are largely artificial.

  3. Spiro Vlachos


    Emma Sherry, it is Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. There is no such country by the name of Republic of Macedonia.

  4. Peter Ormonde


    Wouldn't it be nice if they were all independent olympians? I might even begin to take an interest in all this business... no anthems, no Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi national medal tallies .... sounds lovely.

    1. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Well that's what they are for the other 3 years and 50 weeks. As in any professional sport (like tennis or golf) hey run, jump or whatever as individuals. Unless they happen to be competing in some sort of nationality-based tournament like the Davis Cup or Ryder Cup.

    2. Peter Ormonde


      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Not sure about the independent amateur athlete in the age of the AIS Mat ... seem they spend much of their time working out new places to paste corporate logos when they aren't being poked and prodded by sports scientists.

      To qualify for a lot of the major sports requires a series of contests at international level - lots of jetting off to far flung places at public expense.

      It's become an industry - the national pride industry - and a lot of commercial interests have an interest in associating…

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    3. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I didn't say they were independent of support OR amateur. You've completely invented my meaning there. What I said was that they compete as individuals. When Sally Pearson runs as a professional athlete in the Turin Grand Prix or whatever, she's running as Sally Pearson, not as part of a formal Australian delegation. We may take pride in her as an Australian, but the competition is not done on the basis of anthems, national medal tallies etc.

    4. Gary Murphy

      Independent Thinker

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I agree - I just can't stomach the 9 coverage. It is all about the Aussies. Why can't we just watch a sport and appreciate all of the peformances - not just obsess about whether the Aussies are winning?

      Guess I was spoiled by the SBS coverage in Beijing.

    5. Peter Ormonde


      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Yep they compete as individuals Mat - and when they win we hear the anthem and their medal is added to the national tally and the commentators talk endlessly of how "we're" doing and whether Australia's effort is up to expectations....

      But yep sure "our athletes" race as individuals - especially if they lose.

      The real issue: can "our" losers be stripped of citizenship and sent to Christmas Island on attempting to return?

  5. Ron Chinchen

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    Trouble is that they have to be financed and this of course leaves the door open to increasing sponsorship.

    I'm critical of the existing nationalistic posturing associated with athetes, but wonder if it would be any worse than the Acme Soccer team, or the Acme Pharmaeuticals Swimming and Athletics competitors or perhaps the Acme Oil and Gas Gymnastics competitors.

    Make the money available in a central fund paid by governments and companies for athletes to use without national restrictions and then you may have something.

    But hey we're a tribal people arent we and we like to think we're better than the next tribe, so I doubt things will change much.