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The Names of Athletes

Prepared by the OlyMADMen to describe their work to the site's users.

When writing another person’s name, one should make an effort to write that name correctly. But when dealing with a century of Olympic athletes, over 100,000 in number and from literally all countries of the world, this is not always so easy.

When dealing with this amount and diversity of names, it is hard to be consistent and correct in all cases. We have tried our best to display all names correctly, and below follows some explanation on how we have done this and some of the choices we made. This is largely based on what one of our members, Bill Mallon, wrote in a 2001 article in the Journal of Olympic History: "A DATABASE OF OLYMPIANS - the Databasing of Olympic Athletes and Results and Considerations on a Style Sheet of Olympic names".

Full names and used names

For all athletes, we distinguish two kinds of names: the full name and the used name. The full name includes all parts of a name, including middle names, patronymics, additional surnames, etc. For example: James Michael "Jimmy" Jones. Here, James Michael are the competitor’s given names, and Jones his surname or family name. "Jimmy" is how he is usually known, even if it is not his official name.

An athlete’s used name is the name he used while competing at the Olympics. This is often shorter than the full name; for the above example it would be Jimmy Jones.

We have divided both full and used names in parts, to reflect the use of given names and family names. In some languages, such as Dutch, family names can included particles, which are however not always included when sorting. For example, Dutch swimmer Pieter van den Hoogenband is sorted under "H", not "V". To accommodate for this, we have included a particle field.

We realize that the given name/family name division is not applicable for all athletes. Some competitors only have a single name, and some countries do not have a concept of family names. For example, Icelanders are usually just known by their given name. A patronymic (e.g. Jónsson, son of Jón) is used, but is not a proper family name. Many Arabic names do not follow the concept of given names and surnames. We have however chosen to list such names using the same name fields as for other participants.

Married names and name changes

In many countries, it is common for women to assume the surname of their husband upon marriage. However, the exact way this is done, such as the name order or the use of hyphens, differs per country and in some cases per athlete preference. We’ve tried to keep this as correct as we can.

In case a person competes under two or more different names, because of marriage or otherwise, we have included all these names in the used name. For example, German speed skater Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann-Kleemann competed as Gunda Kleemann in 1988, as Gunda Niemann-Kleemann in 1992 and 1994, and as Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann in 1998.

Name order

While in most Western countries it is common to list the given name first, followed by the family name, several countries use the opposite name order. This is mostly seen in Asian countries, such as China and Korea. For most of these countries, we follow this usage. However, we have made exceptions for Japan and Hungary, which actually use the Oriental system of surname first, as the names of these athletes nearly always appear in "Western" style in international sources, thus keeping with what is commonly used.

Transliteration to the Latin alphabet

In order to make the athlete names accessible, we have used the Latin alphabet for all names. For countries that use a different alphabet or script, we have included the spelling as the athlete’s "original name". Presently, we do not have an original name for all athletes, but we strive to include those for all athletes.

The use of the Latin alphabet poses us with the problem of transliteration, "translating" the name from the other alphabet. This is often difficult. Many countries lack official transliteration rules, or these may have changed over time. For example, the name of China’s leader Mao Zedong (using the Pinyin transliteration system) was previously written as Mao Tse-Tung (in Wade-Giles transliteration). Even if such rules are in place, various sources may still render the same name differently, often depending on the language of the transliterator. For example, a single Russian name can be found as Yuri, Yury, Yuriy, Iouri (French), Jurij (German), Joeri in different sources.

For athletes where we have the original spelling available, we have followed well established transliteration rules, and applied them consistently for all athletes from the same country. In many cases, this may mean the name as we list it here may differ from what is seen in other sources. Occasionally, we have made an exception, using a transliteration that is generally accepted for that athlete. An example of this exception, dubbed the Tchaikovsky Rule by Bill Mallon, is the Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova. Her name is always rendered as such (at least in English language sources), although our own Russian transliteration system would dictate the use of Kurnikova, without the additional "o".

While we have included original names for a lot of athletes, we still have various large gaps, notably for competitors from Arabic and many Asian countries. We would welcome any help on filling this gap and improving the Latin spelling of their names. Use the feedback form to offer help with this project.

Difficult cases

In many cases, it is difficult to decide what spelling to use. For example, many athletes from the Baltic and Caucasus states competed for the Soviet Union between 1952 and 1988, when their names were usually first transliterated to Russian before being (re)converted to the Latin alphabet. We have generally used the original form in our database, but what of Baltic athletes with Russian names?

While we try to be consistent in our naming approach, this is not always possible. As the example before suggests, the spelling of names could even be considered a political statement, which is not our intention. We always welcome suggestions for improvement, but please be aware that we will not always change names.

Send in a comment or suggestion.