Do you need to represent a country to participate in the Olympics?

It’s the sort of of question that might cross your mind if you’ve just been turned down by your local NOC. Or if you’re looking for a loophole to line-up alongside elite athletes. Or if you just reckon none of the outfits on offer from the existing countries will properly suit your complexion. Well, you’re in luck. Because the short answer, is no, you don’t need to represent a country to participate in the Olympics.

The more full answer is ‘not really’, but you mostly have to represent a body of some sort whether that’s a country, a territory with its own NOC or another body created by the IOC (e.g. the Unified Team or the Refugee Olympic team). Each of which will come with their own uniform that may or may not suit your complexion.

The Indian hockey team at the 1936 Olympics. Excellent shirts.

There are of course ‘independent athletes’ that have competed when political situations beyond the control of the IOC have intervened (the break-up of Yugoslavia and the dissolution of the Netherland Antilles for example) but this is very rare and under the control of the IOC. It’s not a choice an athlete can simply make.

The long answer, with all the gory details, is below…

* * * * *

When is a country not a country…

At the Olympics you don’t technically compete for your country, but as a member of the team organised by your National Olympic Committee. Now, obviously, in any useful sense, these are one and the same. The French NOC picks French athletes to represent France so Francophiles can cheer them on. But sometimes those NOCs don’t actually represent countries, per se…

Some numbers…

  • Right now, as we embark on the Rio Games, there are 206 NOCs (though there were 207 teams at the Rio Games: all NOCs plus the Refugee Olympic Team)
  • There are only 193 member states of the UN
  • There are 211 member ‘countries’ of FIFA

As you can see above, the numbers show that the rules of what makes a ‘country’ according the International Olympic Committee (IOC) differ to those of the UN and FIFA (and other bodies, of course).

As has already been outlined, this is because a ‘country’ needs a National Olympic Committee (NOC) to compete at the Games.

  • All UN members have an NOC.
  • There are some NOCs that exist due to part recognition by the UN (Palestine, Kosovo, The Cook Islands and Taiwan – or Chinese Taipei as the IOC would have them).
  • There are also two candidate nations who could set up an NOC if they wanted, but haven’t yet done so (the Vatican City and Niue).
  • And there are nations that aren’t recognised by e.g. the UN or the IOC but compete at the Paralympics – part of the Olympics family (Faroe Islands and Macau).

Then there are fully fledged IOC member countries who wouldn’t be considered eligible for an NOC any more, but since they have one historically, they’re allowed in (the rule to only allow sovereign nations to apply for NOC status was passed in 1995). These are dependant territories of other nations. For example, Puerto Rico has an NOC, but is a dependant territory of the USA. There are nine of these.

Or to put it another way: If we use the UN as a definition, then all countries have NOCs, but not all NOCs represent countries. If you don’t want to use the UN definition, then it’s still true that NOCs don’t equal countries (unless your definition of a country is a territory with an NOC, obviously…)

*** Breathes… ***

To unpick this properly, let’s look at the specific case of an athlete from the Netherland Antilles, Churandy Martina, a very talented sprinter who made the final of the 100m and 200m at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. He was only matched in this feat by some Jamaican bloke called Bolt.

Churandy Martina was born in Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean and a former Dutch colony. Up until 2010, he competed as part of The Netherland Antilles, an NOC covering the former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean.

All the colonies except Aruba actually.

That was part of The Netherland Antilles, but got its own NOC in 1986 (the year of the Goodwill Games, Oprah’s debut on TV and Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’).

When the Netherland Antilles NOC was dissolved in 2010 (because the Netherlands Antilles itself was dissolved…) Churandy Martina – along with other former Netherlands Antilles athletes – had a choice to make when competing at the Olympics in London:

  • Compete as an independent athlete
  • Represent the Netherlands
  • Represent Aruba.

He chose to represent the Netherlands.

In this case, he clearly, under any reasonable definition, represented a country.

But he could have chosen to go as an independent, and thus represent just himself, as three athletes from Curaçao did indeed decide to do.

Or he could have represented Aruba. Which is a dependent country as part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. And not a ‘sovereign’ state, or member of the UN. Or even the country or territory Churandy Martina was born in.

So there are your options. Under certain circumstances you can:

  • Represent a country of the UN, as all have NOCs
  • Represent a territory that might not be part of the UN, but has an NOC for historic reasons
  • Represent yourself under the Olympic flag as an independent athlete (but only with the express invitation to do so from the IOC)

Some other points…

There are other ways that athletes have competed at the Olympics and not represented a country.

  • Teams flying the Olympic flag have competed at recent Games, including the Unified Team (EUN) in the Summer and Winter Games of 1992 following the break-up of the Soviet Union and, of course, the Refugee team that competed at Rio 2016.
  • Independent athletes have competed during times of political change in the former Yugoslavia, East Timor and the Netherland Antilles.
  • This kind of political change has of course retrospectively led to athletes having represented countries/NOCs that no longer exist (e.g. East Germany, Serbia & Montenegro, Czechoslovakia and others).
  • One athlete from India, Shiva Keshavan, competed at the 2014 Sochi games as an independent while India were suspended from the IOC for corruption, similarly the Kuwaiti team competed as independents at Rio 2016 while Kuwait were suspended winning one gold and one bronze in the process. Note, Russian athletes – where they were able to compete – still competed for Russia at Rio 2016 (e.g. Darya Klishina the only Russian to compete in athletics)
  • In early Olympics, there were also ‘mixed teams’ that took part: ‘Denmark & Sweden’, ‘USA & Cuba’ and the rather odd ‘Great Britain & Bohemia’ which are obviously country like, but not technically countries. Athletes competing in these groupings won a total of 17 medals in the 1896, 1900 and 1904 Games.

 

(First posted on Quora)

That’s not the answer. It’s not even close.

At every Summer Olympic Games (well, except St Louis in 1904 – a lot of stuff was different at St Louis), there are a few – and often a lot – of events that take part away from the host city.

Usually this is for practical reasons (like sailing, you gotta have that water for that sailing or people WILL GET HURT), or to make use of better existing facilities (riding, rowing, canoeing and shooting often fall into this trap – that’s a shooting joke of course). Sometimes though, it’s simply to spread Olympic joy further around the host country. This is mostly done with football during recent Games. A total of 57 cities in all have hosted Olympic football, some many hundreds of miles from the heart of the games.

In total, having undertaken a digital wandering across the planet (well, the part of it they’re willing to host the Olympics in anyway), I’ve found 117 different towns/cities/locations that have played host to official Summer Olympic events away from the host city itself.

Of course, working out what is and isn’t in the host city isn’t an exact science (LA and Tokyo are especially fiddly blobs of never-ending cityscape), but I’ve tried to only include places that are not obviously in the host city or its outer limits. Or at least places where it would be stretching it, and a bit annoying, to tell people you lived in a host city if, for example, you actually lived in Aldershot (location of equestrian and modern pentathlon during London 1948). 

In smaller countries, and for smaller cities those places creep closer than they do for the aforementioned London, LA, or Tokyo. I’ve tried to stay consistent, I may have failed dismally. But hey, I’ve tried.  

As an aside, I missed out additional locations that were taken in only during meandering cycling events and the marathon unless the entire race took place away from the host city.

* * * * *

SOME NUMBERS

The 117 locations break down as:

  • 13 sailing locations
  • 57 football venues
  • 47 locations for all other events.

On the map (linked below, I will make you read to the end to find it), the sailing and football venues are separated out on different layers. Football because there are so many of them, and the approach is explicitly to move the event around. Sailing because some cities can’t really help not being by the sea. The rest, are a brilliant mix of random. 

SOME EXTRA INFO

If you’re the kind of person that’s reading this website entirely of your own volition, then you’ll probably appreciate this kind of extra info. It’s the kind of detail that marks an Olympic nerd from an Olympic geek. And let’s face it, if you’re enjoying this you’re both…

There are Olympic host cities over the years that have played host to events in years other than the year in which they were the host. I haven’t detailed these on the map because that’s not what the map is for (though I have included all host cities for reference), but for completeness, the locations in this category are:

  • Melbourne: host to football during Sydney’s 2000 games
  • Amsterdam: host to sailing during the Antwerp 1920 games
  • And, maybe most well known… the equestrian events for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 that took place in Stockholm due to quarantine regulations in Australia.

EXTRA EXTRA INFO

  • St Louis is the only Summer games to take place entirely in the host city (this was helped dramatically by not having any sailing events)
  • Brussels, Belgium; Augsburg, Germany & Athens GA, USA played host to three separate events when posing as Olympic venues, which is frankly greedy. Several other locations hosted two events (usually canoeing and rowing, or shooting/equestrian along with Modern Pentathlon)
  • Tallinn in Estonia hosted the sailing for the Moscow 1980 games while Minsk (Belarus) and Kiev (Ukraine) hosted football matches. While all were part of the mighty USSR during 1980 they now exist in countries that are not Russia. This means Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine have hosted an Olympic event but the games have never actually been held in their country.  
  • Karuizawa, Japan hosted the equestrian events during the Tokyo Olympics. While this was great for the horse lovers of the area, it was more great for the townsfolk decades later when it also hosted the curling events during the Nagano winter games. That makes Karuizawa the only city to host both a winter and summer olympic event. Cold horses and toasty curling stones are presumably on all postcards in the area. Karuizawa will sadly lose their unique record in 2022 when Beijing will host the winter games 14 years after hosting the Summer games. 

THE MAP

OK, time to get stuck in. You can see the map here…

Click on each location to get a short run-down of what happened at each outpost (and in some cases, marvel at which host city it was involved with).

The non-existent line between victory and defeat

Sometimes, despite their best efforts, it’s impossible to separate athletes. Not those in love, or fighting over who can get a selfie with Hero the Hedgehog, of course but those, who, having competed over many meters / moments / games / goes find themselves not gloriously fist pumping, nor sat on their haunches, hands on muzzle but instead tied in a dead heat having matched each other in every way possible (or at least every way measured, I’m not suggesting they ended up competing in the same sort and size of socks).

Wikipedia has a great list of every time this has happened at the sharp end of the Olympics, so we’ll concern ourselves with that for now. Should time/data/my infant son’s constant desire for attention allow, I’ll append a whole slew of examples from World and Area Championships large and small one day. But not today. Today we’re ripping directly from Wikipedia.

In total, 114 Summer events and 29 Winter events have produced a tie for medals. In some cases those events have offered up more than one tie (i.e. a tie for Gold and a tie for Bronze). In some cases those ties have been between MORE THAN TWO PEOPLE. These times are wonderful times (and a lot of them are, of course, actually heights and points ).

Gymnasts at the 1908 Olympics, all equally entertaining

* * * * *

Some STACTS (stat/facts):

  • The majority of the ties come from the same events in gymnastics, speed skating, athletics
  • There is little consistency in how ties have been dealt with over the years. The classic solution is to forgo Silver, for example, if there’s a dead heat for Gold. But in 1912, for example, they just kept handing ’em out down the line because those Swedes are just good eggs.
  • There are events where two Bronzes are always offered, most notably boxing where there’s no 3/4th place play off. Over the years Water Polo, Polo, Rowing, Badminton and Table Tennis have popped up with this plan as a one off, while Tennis has done it a couple of times and Judo (since ’72), Taekwondo and Wrestling (both since ’08) are doing it right now. These are not included in any of this info.
  • The 1932 LA Olympics were the only Summer Olympics not to see a tie. They’ve been seen in most Winter Olympics too.
  • One might imagine the Long Jump, for example, would yield tied marks, but none appear on the list. That’s because Long Jump is an example of an event with a method for separating equal distances, specifically by referring to the jumpers’ second best mark. As such it’s judged events, like gymnastics, or any form of racing that has no recourse to separate the competitors short of resorting to scissors, paper, stone (they may as well, it’s no worse than a penalty shoot-out).

So that all said, and two-way-ties aside (you can check them out in the list), here are the unlikeliest of unlikelihoods at the pinnacle of Olympic competition…

Triples Ties

There have been 19 instances of ‘triple’ ties in Olympic history. These are they:

  • London, 1908: Men’s high jump (three athletes stuck on 1.88m – a long time before Dick Fosbury )
  • London, 1908: Men’s pole vault (a double dead heat, see more below)
  • Stockholm, 1912: Men’s pole vault (another double dead heat, see more below)
  • London, 1948: Men’s Pommel Horse (three Finns all sharing Gold! 🇫🇮🇫🇮🇫🇮)
  • London, 1948: Men’s Vault (triple Bronze handed out)
  • Melbourne, 1956: Men’s Floor (triple Silver 🤸‍♂️)
  • Tokyo, 1964L: Men’s Individual All Around (Silver all-around)
  • Moscow, 1980: Women’s uneven bars (one, two, three Bronze)
  • LA, 1984: Mens’ Vault (and incredible FOUR WAY TIE! “There’s more silver here than in the state of  Colorado” – watch the action unfold below 🥈🥈🥈🥈)
  • Seoul, 1988: Men’s Pommel Horse (Bulgaria, Hungary and the Soviet Union all took home Gold)
  • Barcelona, 1992: Men’s High Jump (triple Bronze handed out)
  • Barcelona, 1992: Men’s Parallel Bars (triple Bronze handed out)
  • Barcelona, 1992: Women’s Floor (triple Bronze handed out)
  • Atlanta, 1996: Men’s Horizontal Bars (triple Bronze handed out)
  • London, 2012: Men’s High Jump (triple Bronze handed out) 
  • Rio 2016: Men’s 100m Butterfly (three silvers in a magnificent race… see it below 🏊‍♂️🏊‍♂️🏊‍♂️)
  • St Moritz, 1928: Men’s 500m Speed Skating (a double dead heat, see more below)
  • St Moritz, 1948: Men’s 500m Speed Skating (all the silvers)
  • 1964, men’s 500m Speed Skating (all the silvers)
  • 1968, women’s 500m Speed Skating (all the silvers)

Presumably if there’d been a 500m Speed Skating event at Barcelona in 1992 the entire final would have been a dead heat.

Double Dead Heats

The double dead-heat has happened five times in the history of Olympic competition. Almost exclusively in a year with an ‘8’ in it (for reasons that are, obviously, entirely coincidental).

  • London, 1908: Men’s Pole Vault (2 Gold 🥇, 3 Bronze🥉)
  • Stockholm 1912: Men’s Pole Vault (2 Silver 🥈, 3 Bronze🥉)
  • St Moritz: 1928 Men’s 500m speed skating (2 Gold 🥇, 3 Bronze🥉)
  • Moscow 1980 Women’s Floor (2 Gold 🥇, 2 Bronze🥉)
  • Seoul, 1988: Men’s Horizontal Bars (2 Gold 🥇, 2 Bronze🥉)

In the case of the 1912 Pole vault competition, six medals in total were awarded: 1 Gold, 2 Silver, 3 Bronze which, by my vague and wanting calculations, makes this the most over-awarded awarded event in Olympic history with 100% more medals awarded than were expected. It’s not, of course, the event with the most medals handed out which would be the football (3x 11 medals) for current events, or Rugby Union (held in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924) for those no longer on the roster. Thought we’d better clear that up because, well, nerdius.

As an aside while we’re on the point of ‘extra medals’, the IOC do of course create more medals than are needed when they mint the awards for each edition (46 extra for the Sochi games for example) so these can be handed out in the event of ties, or someone losing them, or defects. Should re-allocation happen however, as in the case below, it’s not always the case that the same medal handed to the drugs cheats finds its way to the rightful owners (the linked article suggests only 3 of 24 medals awarded to compromised Russians have been handed back willingly – do anything to win, right? 💉💉💉)

Re-awarding

There is an odd case from the 2000 Sydney Olympics to act as a coda here.

In the women’s 100m, two athletes have been awarded the Silver medal, but NOBODY the Gold. On the day itself US athlete Marion Jones crossed the finish line first propelled, as it was later determined – and she admitted – by veins pumped with drugs. Instead of second placed Katerina Thanou being upgraded to silver however she remains somewhat in limbo in that place, joined by Tanya Lawrence of Jamaica who the IOC upgraded, while the great Merlene Ottey now stands as the Bronze medallist 20 years after winning 200m Bronze in Moscow.

The reason for this oddity? Thanou was herself banned for missing a routine drug test at the 2004 Olympics and the IOC have stated, quite simply “Upgrading is not automatic. Every potential upgraded athlete will be scrutinised. We have to be absolutely sure that they are clean.”

But for now, there’s two awarded Silvers in the world, but no Gold. There are many fine lines between victory and defeat.

Colour Coordinated Champions of the World

When I was about 11 years old I was in a geography class at school and, since it was the end of term, the teacher had decided we’d have a quiz. This quiz had two main parts. 

The first, was to identify the locations of various cities. This could have been tough for a poorly-travelled child with a little over a decade on earth, but it was eased significantly by: a) a burgeoning knowledge of European football, b) a delight in being able to name all the Olympic host cities and c) a huge globe at my grandparents’ house (that housed booze, obviously). 

The second part was built around identifying countries by their flags. To nail this one, Olympiphilia was more than enough. 

It’s struck me ever since that a nerdy obsession with sport has various fringe benefits in terms of knowledge gained. A good handling of what kinds of names people have in different parts of the world for example, something that helps you take a decent stab a suggesting where an unknown Nobel laureate might have been born when asked to do so in a particularly fiendish pub quiz. And it gives you a decent grasp of the changing geo-political landscape too (”Well, the EUN team of former soviet nations competed at the 1992 games before any of the countries had a chance to set up an IOC, so I guess the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991?”). Again, useful in a fiendish pub quiz. Or to impress an immigration official on a date say.

And, of course, a deeply held love for global sport of any kind helps you get to grips with ALL OF THE FLAGS.

*  *  *  *  *

One of the things that tickles me when browsing historical line-ups Olympic finals (or other international sporting jamboree) is when the colours of the flags of the represented nations are matching. The symmetry of the same nation winning gold, silver and bronze for example. Or a whole load of crosses. Or stripes. Or, when everything is basically the same set of colours throughout.

Seriously.

I love it.

And I bet you do a little bit too (or you wouldn’t be reading articles explicitly about the nerdy details of the Olympic games, you’d be out riding a motorbike or shopping for trainers or whatever else it is normal people do with their time). 

So here’s a question to ponder:

Has a final (with 8 or so athletes, I’m not researching every heat and qualifying round, I’m not mental) ever consisted of athletes representing countries whose flag offers an *entirely matching* colour scheme? 

Deep breath…

Let’s find out.

*  *  *  *  *

First up, let’s define what I mean by this just so we’re all clear. I’m talking about flags who share the exact same colours.

The red, white and blue of the UK, the USA and France for example. Or Liberia, though it’s less likely.

So it looks something like this:
🇬🇧 🇺🇸 🇫🇷 🇱🇷

Or, more simply, the red and white of Poland, Denmark, Switzerland and Canada.

Which would be just lovely:
🇵🇱 🇩🇰🇨🇭🇨🇦

Got it? Good.

In the early days of ye olde modern Olympics, colour-schematic finals happened a lot. Not least because those three titans of the USA, UK and France – as noted above – share the same three colours on their flag and, at plenty of events at early games not many others were even trying to compete, let alone win. 

So we’ll scoot on by those examples (thank you very much St Louis 1904) and see if we can uncover anything with a bit more ‘same-coloured-spice’ in the post-war era… 

There’s a lot of ‘nearly made its’ (the kind of line-ups that originally piqued my interest). But the Germans 🇩🇪 – more often that not – and a clutch of successful Chinese 🇨🇳, Soviet era ☭, Brazilian 🇧🇷 and Italian 🇮🇹 athletes (or less often Spaniards 🇪🇸, Hungarians 🇭🇺, Swedes 🇸🇪 or South Africans 🇿🇦 / ‘the racist flag‘) pop up to ruin the red, white and blue fun (and yes, this IS fun). Cuba 🇨🇺, Norway 🇳🇴, Panama 🇵🇦 and Czechoslovakia 🇨🇿 (now the Czech republic) offer some nice alternatives to the ‘big three’, as well as the Dutch 🇳🇱, Australians 🇦🇺 and the New Zealand 🇳🇿 athletes.

And when we swill that altogether in a big pot of result-trawling we find success!
Thank god. I’ve taken time out from spending time with my son to write this.

So, by my reckoning there are three finals that have featured ‘colour schemed finals’ since the war, though two of them (both in 1948) are a bit of a fiddle. They are:

The fiddles come as the nations involved in the 1948 events were: Netherlands, UK, Australia, USA and Panama, whose flags all bore (and still do) red, white and blue. They also included Canada and Jamaica whose flags do not (though Canada’s red and white is still pleasing to the colour scheme). In 1948 both nations flags were yet to emerge into their independent designs, with both echoing Australia’s current flag as a clear subset of the Union Jack. 

1956 however, and that men’s 100m backstroke, is the duck’s pyjamas, as it were:

3x Australians 🇦🇺
3x Americans 🇺🇸
1x Frenchman 🇫🇷
1x Brit 🇬🇧

Red, White, BOOM! 🎉

There are a range of other finals with red, white and blue represented in each competitor however including the ‘64 men’s 1500m‘64 women’s 100m, and ‘68 women’s 100m (where Poland broke the red, white, blue scheme), and the ‘56 men’s 1500m freestyle‘56 men’s 100m freestyle, and ‘64 women’s 100m backstroke (where Japan broke the scheme). The 2008 women’s 200m breaststroke, and 2008 men’s eight also fit the representation of these three colours with Canada and Austria joining the fun alongside fully schemed-up members Russia and Norway. But I do enjoy (I do, I really do. This perturbs my wife.) both the 2012 women’s 100m hurdles final and the 2008 men’s lightweight coxless fours where the red, white and blue were the only colours involved, but they neatly separate into groups in the final order. Most pertinently, the 2008 men’s rowing result delivered three medallists with only red and white flags (Denmark, Poland and Canada), which must have made for a particularly minimalist and well art directed medal ceremony. This is what happens when you let the stylish Danes win.

🇩🇰 🇵🇱 🇨🇦

Some final points…

While not a clean sweep, there are a few events where the top eight (or more competitors) flew the red, white and/or blue:

And let’s finish on some special mentions:

  • The 2000 women’s BMX competition had 16 competitors, 12 of which flew red, white and/or blue (with China, mostly red, Argentina, mostly blue and Hungary,… ugh).
  • The 2008 men’s Keirin had only one competitor from the semi final stage that didn’t fly red, white and/or blue (a German, naturally) … well, if you can forgive the sun on the Malaysia flag. You can’t can you? Fine.
  • Of 53 medals awarded during the 2008 games in Beijing to male swimmers, a stunning 46 were won by nations flying red, white and/or blue (China, Hungary, Brazil and Germany scooped up 7 medals in the wake of Michael Phelps and his colour-schemed brethren)
  • All medals won in the women’s pole vault (which was first introduced at the Sydney games in 2000) have led to the flying of only red, white and blue on the podium… 🇺🇸 🇦🇺 🇮🇸 🇷🇺 🇵🇱 🇨🇺 🇬🇷 🇳🇿

Can you believe we got there? No, neither can I. But we did. And for that, we should all be glad.

Oh, and while this is of course all well and good for entertainment purposes (and yes, this IS entertaining), it’s really the brilliance of all colours at the Olympic games – well reflected in the flags from across the world – that make it the event it is.

Now, since that’s sorted, I wonder if the finalists in any event have ever finished in alphabetical order? Or age order? Or height order? 

Please feel free to find out…

 


Notes.

I looked at all Summer Olympic sports where a final event takes place between multiple competitors (i.e. shooting, weightlifting, cycling, rowing etc) but not the team sports, or any competition based on matches (tennis, badminton etc). I didn’t trawl through the Winter Olympics because it was quite sunny outside and it felt wrong.