Olympic “Nations” — Who Decides? Part 1

Dave asked,

Great Britain enters a team into the Olympics, not the UK. So, I think that England, Wales, and Scotland play as one team. I think that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland also play as one team in the Olympics. In FIFA Soccer competitions, all of these “countries” enter their own teams. What’s going on?

Note that this is even weirder considering that Puerto Rico, a territory of the US, has it’s own team in the Olympics. I just don’t get it.

First, an introduction to the relevant parts of the Olympic Charter. In the next two days, I’ll delve deeper into the issue.

Each participating nation is represented by a National Olympic Committee (NOC). The International Olympic Committee (IOC) decides whether to recognize a new NOC when a national sports organisation applies for recognition. All the members of the IOC vote on each new recognition at its (annual) Session meetings.

So, if an athlete appears at the Olympics, it must have been sent by an NOC. At some point, every NOC made a formal application to be recognised by the IOC, and the IOC approved it. Given the history of IOC approvals, the IOC seems to recognise new NOCs according to pragmatic factors rather than principled definitions. The IOC is famously proud of remaining above politics, but geopolitics must play a role, if only to safeguard peace and harmony, a basic value of the Olympic Movement. (The fact that the IOC does not recognise national medal totals is cited as a stand for the Olympic Movement.)

So, Puerto Rico is an Olympic nation because, when the members of the IOC considered Puerto Rico’s application in 1948, it made sense to those members to recognise it as a nation. Scotland is not an Olympic nation because it has not applied for recognition.

While the Soviet Union broke up in 1992, its NOC disbanded. Some new NOCs, like Estonia‘s, were approved before the 1992 Olympic Games. The Ukrainian national organisation existed from 1990, but the IOC did not approve it for the 1992 games. So Ukraine competed with 11 other nations in a temporary group called the Unified Team, as allowed by the IOC.

Some nations are not represented at the Olympic Games because their NOCs have been suspended. Iraq, for example, was suspended because its government took a direct role in its NOC, which is expressly forbidden by the Olympic Charter.

The story of the Olympic nations goes well beyond the legalism of the Olympic Charter, of course. I’ll get to that shortly.

2 Comments to “Olympic “Nations” — Who Decides? Part 1″

  1. Dave said...
    15 August 2008

    Great post, Will. I think I understand a little more now. It’s since forming an NOC and applying for instatement is not in any way linked to the government of those countries. I guess that makes sense.

    However, I wanted to note that the IOC agreed to re-instate Iraq for the games in an eleventh hour arrangement. Iraq agreed to hold elections for a new NOC by November, and the IOC agreed to allow them to compete in Beijing.


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