Philip Barker

This week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board rubber stamped the decision to allow a team of refugees to take part in the 2016 Olympic Games. IOC President Thomas Bach reasoned: "If you have 60 million displaced persons, more than at at any time in the history of mankind, then among them must be some athletes.."

They will formally be known as Refugee Olympic Athletes and will live in the village as one team. They will march at the opening ceremony together under the Olympic flag and be subject to the same strict anti-doping rules as all the other competitors. Some 43 potential team members have already been identified but the final team is expected to number around ten.

In an Olympic World full of abbreviations, they will also have the newest Olympic acronym, ROA.

The problem of stateless individuals and disputed national boundaries has dogged the Olympic movement for over a century. Baron Pierre de Coubertin tried to implement what he called ‘’Olympic Geography’’ and allowed teams from territories that did not always have political status.

In 1908, the Finns were part of the Imperial Russian Empire yet were permitted to march under their own flag. They pointedly kept their distance from the Russian team members.

In the early days, there was even an IOC member in a country that did not exist. When the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia, described rather euphemistically in an IOC bulletin as "recent changes in Central Europe", it left the Olympic movement with a tricky diplomatic problem.

Founder member Dr Jiri Guth Jarkovsky had been a representative of Bohemia since it had been part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. The IOC agreed he should continue to be part of their family and President Baillet de Latour ‘’thanked the German members for the successful conclusion of these negotiations".

Independent Olympic Athletes enter the stadium at London 2012
Independent Olympic Athletes enter the stadium at London 2012 ©Getty Images

Perhaps the most famous displaced Olympic champion was Sohn Kee Chung. At the time, his native Korea was occupied by Japan and he won gold in the 1936 marathon only wearing a Japanese vest and listed as Son Kitei in all the official records.

He would later say ‘’I ran without a country, it was heartbreaking’’. For him at least happier times were to follow. He carried the Korean flag when they made their bow in their own right at the 1948 Olympics and a generation later, he was also chosen to bring the torch into the Seoul Olympic stadium at the 1988 Games.

Those Games were a watershed. Within a year the political landscape was transformed as the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union disintegrated shortly afterwards.

It was a conflict in another part of Europe which highlighted the need for Individual Olympic Athlete status in 1992.

War raged in the Balkans states of the former Yugoslavia. In May 1992, the United Nations had introduced a ban on all relations with the country. It was less than two months before the Olympics were to begin in Barcelona. The Yugoslavian football team had already been ejected from the European Championship finals in Sweden.

‘’The IOC could not accept a decision of this kind and in the teeth of considerable difficulties and by dint of direct negotiations with the UN Security Council sanctions committee, it prevailed upon the latter to revise its point of view,” they said.

When Juan Antonio Samaranch addressed the IOC Session in Barcelona less than a week before the Olympic opening ceremony, it was still not certain that Yugoslav athletes would be permitted to take part. 

He told his colleagues negotiations had been hard because their interlocutors at the UN "knew nothing about sport’’.

Eventually agreement was reached. Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian athletes were to compete as what were then styled as Independent Olympic Participants (IOP). They would not march in the opening ceremony, and all would wear white uniforms. In any medal ceremonies, the Olympic flag would be raised.

Future IOC President Jacques Rogge was amongst those to express his delight. ’’It was an excellent response to the IOC’s critics, namely to show that it did seek to take care of the athletes,’’ he said.

‘It is a great victory for sport," echoed IOC director general Francois Carrard.

Some 58 former Yugoslav competitors travelled to Barcelona, amongst them defending air pistol champion Jasna Sekaric who won silver.

Towards the end of the Millennium, East Timor fell into the Olympic spotlight. The territory was administered by the United Nations and initiatives to dispatch sporting equipment had already been made in Australia and New Zealand.

Victor Ramos of East Timor carried the Olympic flag at Sydney 2000
Victor Ramos of East Timor carried the Olympic flag at Sydney 2000 ©Getty Images

Meetings in Rio with the National Olympic Committees agreed that the Timorese could compete as Individual Olympic Athletes at the Sydney Games. Shortly after the decision had been taken, IOC vice president Kevan Gosper and Olympic Solidarity boss Pere Miro jetted out to put the details in place.

A team of four took part in the Opening Ceremony in Sydney. The Olympic flag was carried by boxer Victor Ramos.

“I was happy to carry that Olympic flag into the stadium,’’ he said. "But I carry my nation and my flag in my heart.”

For Ramos, Olympic competition lasted less than two rounds. He was stopped by Ghanaian Ray Narh.

Weightlifter Martinho de Araujo had been in action on the first full day of competition and marathon runner Calisto da Costa recorded 2 hours, 33 min 11 sec in the very last event of the Sydney Games.

Fellow marathoner Aguida Fatima Amaral had been the only woman in the team. She placed 43rd and returned under her own nation’s red and black Timor Leste flag in 2004.

Their team had been led by United Nations official Frank Fowlie who insisted the trio would be as famous in Timor Leste as the first men on the moon.

‘’When they get off the plane after the Olympics, I have no doubt there will be hundreds, maybe thousands of people waiting to greet them,” he said.

Another marathon runner, Guor Marial Mading Maker, had fled from war torn Sudan as a boy and eventually found his way to the United States of America.

The bitter memories of the fighting had a personal significance, he had lost 28 members of his own family. By 2012 he had achieved the qualification time necessary to run in London. His country, South Sudan, had just declared independence so he had no National Olympic Committee. He chose to run as an Independent Olympic Athlete rather than accept an offer from Sudan to represent them.

“At this level, as an athlete I don’t just represent my family, but the whole of South Sudan," he said.

"It is very important for me to make the right decision."

He placed 47th in London but South Sudan now have recognition from the IOC and he still hopes to race under his own nation’s colours in Rio.