Olympics Roll Call Questions the Identity of Nations
Olympics Roll Call Questions the Identity of Nations
When the Olympic Games open Friday night in Tokyo with a global roll call, audiences will get a geography lesson that comes just once every four years. Schoolteachers use replays of the ceremony to instruct kids about the flags of the world, challenge them to find countries on a map, and ask which places they’ve even heard of. They’d be forgiven for getting a little confused.
Closer examination of what’s called the Parade of Nations reveals a few surprising facts. As many as 207 flags could be marched into the Tokyo Olympic Stadium — each followed by contingents of athletes wearing the national official uniform designed to represent the culture and background of their lands. At least three of those banners, to be on display through the Olympic and Paralympic Games, aren’t even flown at home. By comparison, the United Nations recognizes just 193 states.
This dichotomy highlights the difference between the Olympic Movement and the global body that most see as the arbiter of international politics, inviting questions over the definition of nationhood and who gets to decide. The International Olympic Committee asserts “the sole authority” to recognize a National Olympic Committee, whose mission is to “develop, promote and protect the Olympic Movement in their respective countries.” That means that territories like American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the British Virgin Islands all have NOCs that let them stand at the same level in the Olympics as the countries overseeing them, in this case the US or the UK.
That may sound broad-based, yet the IOC, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, isn’t exactly democratic. Rather than one representative per nation, it's composed of 103 “guardians” of the Olympic Movement — which has a goal “to contribute to building a peaceful and better world” — chosen from an assortment of sporting backgrounds. They elect the president, currently former fencing champion Thomas Bach of Germany, for up to 12 years. Some nations have as many as three members (like China, the US and Switzerland) and others none (many more.)
The United Nations is no more democratic. It’s a private club where existing members dictate who gets to join. Each of the recognized states gets one seat at the table, but all members are required to abide by the decision of the 15-member Security Council (63 countries have never been on it.) Even then, proposals can be vetoed by any one of the council’s five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the UK and the US — meaning that the rules of global politics are governed by fewer than 3% of the UN’s states.
Apart from who gets to be counted, the Olympics have other quirks. At every games, Greece always enters the stadium first because it’s the birthplace of the movement. The host nation comes last. In between, the parade proceeds in alphabetical order, which by tradition is based on the language of the welcoming country. This means that because of the way national names are transliterated in Japanese, Iceland and Ireland will appear before Australia and Austria.
This year, 29 athletes will march under a banner not entirely their own (the Olympic flag itself) as members of the Refugee Olympic Team, a concept pioneered in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 to give an opportunity to those fleeing repression and hardship. Among them is Yusra Mardini, who along with her sister and two others swam and dragged an overloaded, immobilized boat of fellow Syrian refugees for three hours during their treacherous journey from Turkey to Greece.
Russian competitors are left somewhat stateless after a record of incessant doping got the country banned from these games. Instead, athletes had to apply to compete through an unaffiliated group under the moniker ROC (for Russian Olympic Committee), using a logo derived from the national and Olympic flags.
Then there’s Taiwan. Currently at the nexus of tensions between the US and China, 68 competitors will again compete for an entity called Chinese Taipei with a flag designed solely for the purpose. Pressure from Beijing means that few dare to designate the delegation otherwise, despite Taiwan’s separate, democratic political system. For Taiwanese, the upside is the ability to turn up at all — a situation not afforded to it at the UN or its agencies, such as the World Health Organization.
Given China’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, recognition isn’t likely to come soon. This isn’t unique at the Olympics. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has been recognized by 96 UN member states, but crucially not veto-wielding Russia (or China). Yet the IOC accepted Kosovo’s Olympic committee in 2014, and the team’s debut in Rio was rewarded with a gold medal in judo for Majlinda Kelmendi. She’ll be carrying the national flag. Palestine has sent athletes to the Olympics since 1996, some 16 years before being accorded the designation of non-member observer state of the UN., short of full recognition. Five athletes are registered to compete.
Letting the IOC decide who’s a nation clearly wouldn’t eliminate the machinations involved in recognition; it merely gives us another way to look at the world. It’s worth remembering that the modern Olympics have been in existence a half-century longer than the UN. The IOC knows how to exercise its own brand of diplomacy. In recent times, a unified Korea marched under one flag for the PyeongChang Winter Games in 2018. Former Soviet republics were offered a collective umbrella to compete in 1992 after the breakup of the USSR disrupted what had been the national sports structure.
Of course, many countries have existed for centuries, well before either organization was formed. Consider that Switzerland only became a UN member in 2002. Austria, Finland, Italy and Japan also took years. Supranational bodies define their requirements for membership at the risk of being seen as irrelevant or absurd to the people who actually constitute nations.
The Olympics aren’t supposed to be political, but they are. Better to enjoy the spectacle of color and culture. See how many flags you recognize. You may not see them again for another four years.