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)