Stateless People: Independent Olympic Athletes

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 8/07/2012 08:26:00 AM
My heart naturally goes out to the stateless people of the world. In our part of the globe there are those frequent headline-grabbers the Rohingya in western Burma. Unfortunately, they are far from alone in their persecution by nation-states who think they do not belong and have not been shy about using their monopoly of violence in "othering" these people in academic-speak. For an extreme case, consider the Kurds.

In theory, the Olympics are a celebration of camaraderie among nations through the medium of sport. These events, however, are not primarily a spectacle of nationhood but of sporting achievement. That is, athletes ultimately make the games something worth watching.

Thus, there is a conundrum of what to do with athletes who, through no fault of their own, find themselves as (transitionally) stateless people unrepresented by any particular nation who nonetheless want to compete in the Olympics. Hence the designation of "independent Olympic athletes" for those coming from recently-dissolved states which no longer have Olympic committees, or those from states which have just come into existence and have not had time to form them. Australia's The Conversation has a recap:
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.

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.
As with many things Olympic, the existence of these athletes owes something to geopolitics. With the end of the Cold War, the former Yugoslavia was Balkanized, posing a challenge for those nonetheless wishing to participate in the 1992 Summer Olympics. Rather than be disqualified from participation through no fauilt of their own, this new category emerged. During the first time out, a number of participants from the former Yugoslavia actually won medals nation-state in particular:
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.
It is further noted that athletes from Timor Leste (East Timor) participated in the 2000 Sydney Olympics in its transition away from Indonesia. During the current Games, meanwhile, we have four independent Olympic athletes. Three come from Curacao, one of two nations emerging from the dissolved Netherland Antilles alongside St. Maartens. During the opening ceremonies, they wowed the audience with their dance routine. Another athlete hails from troubled South Sudan, which alike Curacao presumably did not have an Olympic committee in place:
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).

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. 
Guor Marial's story is remarkable in itself. Fortunately, then, it's good to know that these athletes are only momentarily stateless due to circumstances which will be rectified--unlike the aforementioned stateless people whose condition is protracted. But, you never can tell when national breakdown and/or independence in other parts will create further stateless athletes in future events as the world churns.