Philip Barker

It was all smiles in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month when International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach welcomed South Sudan as the newest members of the Olympic family.

“We send a signal of hope to the young nation of South Sudan,” said Bach. "In sport all people are people are equal, all ethnic groups and all religions are equal, a signal that South Sudan needs in difficult times.”

South Sudan has been ravaged by civil war but National Olympic Committee President Lieutenant General Wilson Deng Kuoirot promised: “We will arm our young people with sport not guns.”

The arrival of South Sudan onto the Olympics should ensure that the the Opening Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro a year from now will feature a record 206 nations. Kosovo will also march under its own flag for the first time after it received similar recognition last December at the IOC Session in Monaco.

The sheer size and geographical spread of the Games in the 21st century would surely amaze the men who founded the Modern Olympic Games.

For the first Games in Athens back in 1896, there were around 200 competitors and all of them were men. Host country Greece and 11 other countries took part. Of those, only competitors from United States and Australia came from outside Europe.

Though the number of participants had increased to over 2,000 by London 1908, these still came predominantly from Europe though Canada and South Africa had now joined the Olympic party.

At this time Australia and New Zealand were styled “Australasia” a name which did not go down well either side of the Tasman Sea. This was rectified by the Antwerp 1920 Games.

South Sudan followed many other countries over the last century in successfully gaining Olympic recognition ©Getty Images
South Sudan followed many other countries over the last century, successfully gaining Olympic recognition at the International Olympic Committee's 128th Session in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month ©Getty Images

By the First World War, the principle of National Olympic Committees was well established. The defeated powers were excluded from the immediate post war Games but the South American nations made their bow. Brazil’s first formal Olympic team made it to Antwerp in 1920 and came away five medals thanks to their shooting team. Guilherme Paraense even claimed gold in the 30 metres military pistol.

In the 1920s, the footballers of Uruguay were a revelation and won back-to-back gold medals to put their country firmly on the map.

In the inter war years, the Baltic Republics competed in their own right. After the Second World War, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all competed under the red flag, not to return in their own colours until the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.

In 1936, Korean runner Sohn Kee Chung won the marathon gold medal. It should have been his proudest moment. instead he later described it as “heartbreaking". His country was under Japanese occupation and he ran in a Japanese vest. Even his name was recorded on the official results as Kitei Son, the Japanese version.

For him at least there was a happy Olympic conclusion to the story. When Korea gained independence, he carried their distinctive flag at the 1948 London Olympics. When Seoul hosted the Games in 1988, there was scarcely a dry eye in the stadium when he brought in the Olympic Flame at the Opening Ceremony.

The problem of North and South Korea on the Olympic stage has not yet been satisfactorily resolved. In 2000 at Sydney, two became one when both teams marched behind a special flag.

“The Olympic Truce can be a reality, as demonstrated by the historical joint parade of the two Korean delegations at the Opening Ceremony,” said IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch at the end of the Games.

Sadly relations between the Koreas chilled and they now compete separately once again.

Flagbearers from North and South Korea marching together at the Opening Ceremony of Sydney 2000 ©Getty Images
North and South Korea marched together under a special flag at Sydney 2000 ©Getty Images

Though the Olympic family grew after the second world war, it took until 1952 for Japan and Germany to return to the Olympic fold to swell the number of competing nations to 69.

By this time there were two Germanies. Recognition was eventually forthcoming for the German Democratic Republic's new NOC. After lengthy discussions an agreement was brokered for both nations to march under a united German flag decorated with the Olympic Rings. At victory ceremonies, Beethoven’s ninth would be played.

“We have obtained in the field of sport what politicians have failed to achieve so far," said a delighted IOC President Avery Brundage

As new nations attained independence in the 1960s especially in Africa and Asia, many more flags were seen at the Olympic Games. Marathon runner Trevor Haynes carried the flag for Northern Rhodesia at the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Games in Tokyo. By the time the Games closed, his country had become independent as Zambia. There were now 93 nations marching at the Games and athletes from Africa had shown themselves to be a real force.

But throughout the 1960s, the question of South Africa remained a thorny issue for the IOC. By the end of the decade, the IOC lost patience and excluded them from the Games at the 1970 Session in Amsterdam.

They were not readmitted until the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela.

Their return to the Olympic arena came at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 where they marched under a specially designed flag. The lap of honour by 10,000 metres gold and silver medallists, Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia and Elana Meyer of South Africa, captured the symbolism of the moment to perfection. 

South Africa's Elana Meyer (right) and Ethiopian winner Derartu Tulu celebrate together after the 10,000m final in Barcelona ©Getty Images
South Africa's Elana Meyer (right) and Ethiopian winner Derartu Tulu celebrate after winning the silver and gold medals at Barcelona 1992, the first time South Africa had competed after their ban for apartheid had been lifted ©Getty Images

The newly independent former Soviet Republics were also back. They boosted the nation count to 169 nations at Barcelona 1992 and this swelled to 199 by Sydney 2000.

There were also Independent Olympic Athletes who competed under the Olympic flag. This arrangement allowed a boxer, weightlifter and two marathon runners from East Timor to participate in Sydney even though they did not yet have a recognised Olympic Committee.

The Olympic flag has also been used when the IOC suspends a national Olympic Committee for infringements of regulations. Often these concern the governance of the National Olympic Committee which the Olympic Charter states “must be free".

In Sochi, Indian lugeist Shiva Keshavan competed under the Olympic flag because his country’s NOC was suspended by the IOC. New elections to that body satisfied the IOC and midway through the Games, the Indian flag was hoisted in the Olympic Village as a sign that the suspension had been lifted.

Political change continues to affect the number of countries competing. Athletes from the Netherlands Antilles took part from 1952 but before London 2012, the territory ceased to exist. Athletes now compete for The Netherlands.

As the first Olympics in South America, the 2016 Games will be special for everyone but they will surely have a particular resonance for the newest Olympic nations.

Marathon runner Guor Marial of South Sudan already has experience as an individual Olympic Participant at London 2012. He might well be joined by 800m runner Margret Rumat Rumar Hassan who competed at the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games a year ago. It will mean so much more to both if they qualify to compete in their own national colours a year from now.