The History of Olympians Competing Under the Olympic Flag

It has recently been announced that Russia will likely be banned from the 2020 Olympics with its athletes competing under an Olympic flag instead. As things stand now it is only the formal proposal and not the official punishment. With the prospect of Russian athletes once again competing under their own flag in 2020, I decided to make an article reciting the history of athletes competing under the Olympic flag.

1992 Unified Team (EUN)

This is the most famous example that was used in the immediate aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union. With the Soviet Union dissolving at the very end of 1991, it gave virtually no practical timeline to incorporate the 15 post-Soviet states into the Olympic movement in time for the 1992 Olympics. Instead the sports teams of the USSR would live on under the Olympic flag for the 1992 Summer and Winter Olympics.

Chusovitina (L), Gutsu (M), & Boginskaya (R)

Unlike every other case of independent athletes at the Olympics, the national symbols were not only allowed but openly encouraged with EUN athletes. This was because EUN was created in response to a logistical crisis whereas other cases were usually a punishment. Losing national symbols and the honor of a national flag being raised was the punishment on the offending nation.

EUN athletes competing in individual events had their national symbols used in ceremonial purposes, but not as part of an official tally. It was in team events where non-national symbols (Olympic symbols) were used instead to account for EUN teams with multi-ethnic makeups.

It is important to note that only 12 of the 15 post-Soviet states were part of the EUN. The EUN was heavily influenced by the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which was an attempt to preserve as as much of the political relations between the former Soviet Republics as possible.

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union it was unclear what precisely the CIS would become, was it a new country replacing the Soviet Union? Or simply an intergovernmental institution that was similar to the European Union? This is why EUN athletes often have CIS as their country codes in non-Olympic competitions that were held in 1992.

Former Soviet gymnasts competed at the 1992 World Championships while being touted as “CIS.” This was in spite of there being no team events at that competition. There was also a “CIS Championships” and a “CIS Cup” which were held as a continuation of the USSR Cup and USSR Championships. Both competitions have been continued as the Russian Championships and Russian Cup.

There would continue to be “CIS” teams being represented at dual meets and displays well after the Olympics going all the way to the mid-1990s. During the 1992 Olympics itself members of the CIS teams openly speculated on the possibility of a Unified Team being brought back for the 1996 Olympics.

The post-Soviet state of Lithuania did not compete alongside the Unified Team. Their basketball team would go on to win bronze and famously beat the Unified Team in the process. Their shirts were provided by the band Grateful Dead which sponsored the team.

The three Baltic nations (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) have a very complex political history/status within the USSR. They regarded their time as “members” of the Soviet Union as an illegal occupation. It is a position that also had widespread international support. The Baltic nations wanted nothing to do with continuing any Soviet legacy after its dissolution and did not join either the CIS or EUN.

Concerns over the short timeline between independence and establishing (in the case of the Baltic nations reestablishing) new national Olympic committees (NOC) would be validated. The Baltic nations were incorporated into the Olympics only on a sport-by-sport basis. Gymnastics was one of the sports that did not incorporate athletes from the Baltics. This left Natalia Laschenova and Elena Sazonenkova, who had won gold medals at the 1989 World Championships and were from Latvia ineligible for the 1992 Olympics.

1992 Independent Olympic Participants (IOP)

This is the other team that competed under the Olympic flag at the 1992 Olympics that is not as well known as the EUN. Unlike the EUN which was one distinct team representing the post-Soviet team, the IOP was actually two different teams.

The first was Macedonia (now known as North Macedonia) which had gained independence from Yugoslavia in September of 1991. This did not leave them enough time for their NOC to gain recognition. The reason the Baltic nations were able to succeed in gaining quick IOC recognition whereas North Macedonia didn’t was because the Baltic nations were openly rebelling against Soviet rule years before the breakup of the USSR. This included formally establishing their NOCs as early as 1988 in an attempt to bolster their claim as independent states.

Adding to North Macedonia’s problems was its naming dispute with Greece that was a further obstacle to incorporating their inclusion into the Olympics. The IOC had to engage in the lengthy process of getting the two sides in an open dialogue and find a compromise solution. With both sides doing their best not to budge in the process. They eventually settled on “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” It has since been changed to “North Macedonia” as the official name for the country and thus its official NOC name.

Eight years after hosting the 1984 Olympics, Sarajevo would come under siege. The siege lasted almost four years and turned the former Olympic grounds into a battlefield. The war would be a critical factor in the IOC decision to ban Yugoslavia from the 1992 Olympics.

The other component of IOP was Yugoslavia. Whereas the Soviet Union had 15 distinct Republics, Yugoslavia had six Republics. By this point in history only two of them (Serbia and Montenegro) were still part of Yugoslavia. Still competing as one country, Yugoslavia (what was left of it) had found itself completely isolated from the international community and without any allies over actions it had undertaken as the country was breaking up. Not even Russia and China had come to Yugoslavia’s defense as the nation came under heavy sanctions from the United Nations. The IOC agreed with the UN and international consensus at the time. The internationally isolated and heavily scrutinized Yugoslavia was allowed to compete under the Olympic flag as part of IOP at the 1992 Olympics.

Note: Kosovo would later break away from Serbia and become its own Olympic program.

Athletes from East Timor at the 2000 Olympics

2000 Individual Olympic Athletes (IOA)

After decades of occupation, East Timor gained independence from Indonesia in August 1999. As was the case in the two previous examples, this was not enough time to establish an NOC. The four Olympians from East Timor competed under IOA in 2000.

IOA athletes at the 2012 Olympics

2012 Individual Olympic Athletes (IOA)

In 2012 the IOA would be brought back. Like the IOP in 1992, it would be in response to two distinct countries stemming from completely different situations, but would compete under the same IOC code.

If you are a hardcore gymnastics fan you are probably familiar with The United States and Puerto Rico having different Olympic teams. This is because Puerto Rico is not one of the 50 states of America. But what if tomorrow Puerto Rice became the 51st state? What would the IOC do to Puerto Rico’s Olympic status if they suddenly had the same status within the United States as California?

This exact scenario occurred with the Netherlands and the Netherland Antilles. The Netherland Antilles was a distinct Olympic program up until the 2008 Olympics. In 2010 the Netherland Antilles were dissolved and underwent accession becoming part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Kingdom of the Netherlands is similar in structure to the United Kingdom which includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The Netherland Antilles attempted to preserve its independent Olympic status. The IOC opted against the continued inclusion of the Netherland Antilles and started the process of forcibly removing the NOC from the Olympics which was finalized in 2011. But this left some athletes from the Netherland Antilles who had continued their quest for the 2012 Olympics without a country. The IOC decided to give them a reprieve under an Olympic flag and IOA code.

South Sudan was the other component of the 2012 IOA team. Its story is a repeat of many of the previous cases. The country gained independence in July of 2011 and hadn’t had enough time to establish its own NOC. Its lone athlete competed under IOA instead.

2014 Individual Olympic Athletes (IOA)

After years of frustration with India’s government meddling in the affairs of its NOC, the IOC finally resorted to its nuclear option after attempts to force India to reform went unheeded. India was suspended after the 2012 Olympics for “chronic violations” of the Olympic charter. To make a simple situation unnecessarily complex, India’s status would be restored if they held fresh elections. Elections that weren’t due to be held until two days after the 2014 Olympics were to start.

India sent three athletes to the 2014 Olympics. One of them was slated to compete in the first two days of the 2014 Olympics and had to do so under IOA. The remaining two athletes didn’t start their events until after India’s Olympic status had been restored and were allowed to compete under the Indian flag.

2016 Individual Olympic Athletes (IOA)

Just like India in 2014, Kuwait had been in the crosshairs of the IOC over government interference in its NOC. This caused Kuwait to be suspended in 2010. The suspension was lifted shortly before the 2012 Olympics. While Kuwait was spared this suspension impacting their participation in the Olympics, the same could not be said for major non-Olympic competition. Kuwait competed at the 2010 Asian Games and 2010 Youth Olympics as IOA. From 2015-2017 Kuwait was again suspended this time it cost them representation at an Olympic games. Kuwait competed as IOA at the 2016 Olympics. Their Olympic status was restored in 2018.

2016 Refugee Olympic Team (ROT)

Like the IOP in 1992 and IOA in 2012, the Olympics had two distinctly different components of independent athletes competing under the Olympic flag. Unlike what the IOC did in 2012 and with IOP in 1992, it was decided to separate the two groups of athletes.

In response to the migrant crisis that had dominated headlines in 2015, the IOC decided to setup a team of refugees in solidarity. The refugee athletes (ROT) competed under a separate country code from the Kuwaiti athletes (IOA).

Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova wearing neutral clothing during the medal ceremony

2018 Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)

This is the country code Russian athletes competed under after Russia was banned from the 2018 Olympics but its athletes were still allowed to compete.

Television broadcasters listing Darya Klishina under “ANA” in 2017

Authorized Neutral Athletes (ANA)

While Russia was not banned from the 2016 Olympics, the IAAF which oversees world athletics (track and field) had been given the discretion in ban Russia in its sport. The IAAF did exactly that. Only one exception was made for Darya Klishina who competed for Russia but had been living in the United States for years. She was given a reprieve the night before she was slated to compete and competed under the Russian flag.

The IAAF has continued its ban on Russian athletes in its European and World Championships ever since. But a small number of athletes were allowed to compete under “ANA” such as Darya Klishina. There are ANA athletes that are most likely honest competitors who are victims caught up in this mess such as Mariya Lasitskene and Darya. Then there are others such Danil Lysenko who simply hadn’t been caught yet. The case of Danil Lysenko who is alledged to have been aided by Russian officials was especially egrigious. It represents a massive setback for Russia trying to get back into the IAAF’s good graces in time for the 2020 Olympics.

To Recap:

1992 EUN: Former Soviet States
1992 IOA: North Macedonia and Yugoslavia (Serbia & Montenegro)
2000 IOA: East Timor
2012 IOA: Netherlands Antilles and South Sudan
2014 IOA: India
2016 IOA: Kuwait
2016 ROT: Refugee Olympic Team
2018 OAR: Russia
2017-Present ANA: Russia in IAAF (Track and Field/World Athletics)

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