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Countries and Nationalities at the Olympics

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

One would think that is is easy to assign a nationality to Olympic athletes. If we watch the Olympics on television, next to each athlete a flag and a 3-letter abbreviation appears, representing the nationality. But it's a bit more complicated than that.

Before national teams existed (1896–1906)

[This section is still open to debate among researchers]

In the Olympics before 1908, there were no national teams as we know them today. A few countries had official delegations and even qualifying contests, but most competitors entered individually, or were entered by their club. Olympic historians and statisticians usually try to retroactively assign all competitors a nation. For most competitors it is clear which country they were from, but there are some problematic cases.

Generally, we have tried to determine the citizenship of the athlete in question to determine nationality. When no such information is available, we have used club information or nationality information given in contemporary sources. A few cases deserve to be mentioned:

Team competitions in the era were often held between club teams, and could include members from various countries. Hence, some of these teams were of mixed nationality, which is not allowed at the Olympics today. Various competitors at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis were foreign nationals who lived in the United States. Some of those lived there temporarily and moved back, others had emigrated and later assumed U.S. nationality. In 1896 and 1906, many "Greek" competitors entered, listing affiliations from cities or countries that were not part of Greece at the time. Some of these were part of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), others came from Cyprus or Egypt, both under British control at the time. Nevertheless, these competitors were generally ethnic Greeks, and many of them were considered "resident aliens", although a few probably also possessed Turkish passports. We have listed all these competitors as competing for Greece.

Dependent countries

Not every team competing at the Olympics represents an independent country. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognizes various dependent territories, which can send their own teams to the Olympics. Examples of these include Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, and Bermuda, a British overseas territory.

There are also examples of dependent nations competing in the early Olympics. A notable example is Bohemia (roughly equivalent with present-day Czech Republic), which was allowed to enter a separate team even though it was formally part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy. The empire's two chief countries (Austria and Hungary) also entered separate teams themselves. Similar examples include Finland (part of Russia in 1912) and Iceland (formerly a Danish dependency).

Continuity of country names

Over the past century, several countries have changed names, after becoming independent from their days as a colony of a European nation. In the interest of simplicity and clarity, we have used the current name and abbreviation for a country for historical occurrences. For example, the country now known as Ghana competed in the 1952 Olympics under the name of Gold Coast, then still a British colony. However, we have listed this participation under Ghana (GHA). Other examples include Sri Lanka (previously Ceylon) and Myanmar (formerly Burma).

One country warrants special mention in this case: Yugoslavia. Most of the nation's republics declared their independence in the early 1990s, and competed as separate teams at the Olympics. Between 1996 and 2002, however, an Olympic team from Yugoslavia competed, representing the remaining republics of Serbia and Montenegro. At the time, many other countries did not recognize them under the name Yugoslavia, and the country eventually changed its name to Serbia and Montenegro (SCG) in 2003, and competed as such in 2004 and 2006. Because the post-1992 Olympic Yugoslavia is essentially the same country as the Serbia and Montenegro, we have combined those.

Competitors under the Olympic flag

On two occasions, the IOC has allowed individual athletes to compete in the Olympics because they were unable to enter because there was no National Olympic Committee available to them. The first time this happened was at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Athletes from what remained of Yugoslavia (Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro) were not allowed to compete because of UN Security Council Resolution 757. The IOC negotiated the possibility of these athletes, in non-team sports, competing under the Olympic Flag, which was allowed. They were known as Independent Olympic Participants (IOP).

In 2000, the IOC allowed competitors from the newly independent East Timor to compete, although there was not yet a NOC. The athletes were known as Independent Olympic Athletes (IOA), under the Olympic Flag.

In 1992, another country also competed under the Olympic flag at both the Winter and Summer Olympics. The Soviet Union had formally dissolved in late 1991, but twelve of the 15 former Soviet republics still competed together – only the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania entered separate teams. The 12 other republics – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan – entered under the name of the Unified Team (EUN), and competed under the Olympic Flag. However, at medal ceremonies for individual competitors, the national flag of their country was used.

The British Empire

In 1908 and 1912, there were a few occasions where Britain could enter various teams, representing one of the home nations. We have listed all of these competitors as British, but their team names reflect their origin: England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Note that prior to Irish independence in 1922, Irish athletes also competed for Britain. In 1904, however, the entire British representation consisted of three Irish athletes, and they presented themselves as competing for Ireland, rather than Britain.

The British territories of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa all became more or less independent in the early 20th century, although a formal independence day is hard to define (with the exception of South Africa). We have chosen to list all competitors from these countries prior to 1908 under their respective nations, although some of them represented British clubs while competing. In 1908 and 1912, Australia and New Zealand competed together under the name of Australasia, as they did in various other sports competitions at the time.

Special mention should be made of Norman Pritchard, who we consider to be India's first Olympian. However, he was nominally a British citizen and also competed for British clubs while in Europe. His nationality has engendered controversy among British and Indian Olympic historians.

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