A True Celebration of Olympic Values: Athletes Without A Country

By John M. Burnor

This year’s Olympics continue to be one of the most interesting and exciting sporting events in recent history.  Last week, I opined that some of the decisions made by those running the games seemed to contradict the purpose and spirit of the games.  This week, I turn to an IOC decision that I believe truly embodies Olympism.  This year, the IOC decided to allow four athletes to compete independently, unaffiliated with any country, under the Olympic flag. Although not unprecedented, I believe the decision – to allow athletes without their own national Olympic committee to compete – truly exemplifies the Olympic spirit of competition, athleticism, and world harmony.  

Three of these independent athletes – Reginald de Windt, Lee-Marvin Bonevacia, and Philipine van Aanhol – hail from Curacao which used to be a part of the Netherland Antilles. In 2010, the Netherland Antilles dissolved, and Curacao became an autonomous country.  In 2011, the IOC withdrew recognition from the national Olympic committee of the Netherland Antilles. In its place, the IOC created a “temporary administrative structure” which allows qualified athletes from the islands to compete as independent athletes, under the Olympic flag, until Curacao is able to put together its own committee.

Guro Marial, the fourth independent athlete, has no country to call his own.  Born in what is now the country of South Sudan, he has been a refugee since 1993, when he escaped the Sudanese civil war and made his way to the United States to live with his uncle.  Although he possesses a green card due to his status as a refugee, he is ineligible to represent the U.S. because he is not a citizen. When he first qualified for the Olympics, the IOC urged him to accept the invitation from the Sudanese national committee to represent Sudan, since South Sudan has not been able to create a national committee yet.  Marial refused the invitation because of the long, bloody civil war that only recently ended with the creation of South Sudan.  Eight of Marial’s siblings died in the conflict and countless others were murdered by the Sudanese regime during the Darfur conflict. In deference to his decision, and barely a week before the games began, the IOC decided to allow him to participate as an independent athlete.

Around the world, there are currently an estimated 42 million refugees, people separated from their country of origin because of war and strife.  Athletic competition may not be in the forefront in their minds, but many, like Marial, are very talented athletes.  Refugees, even settled into a new country, often remain stateless for years.  Some, like Marial, believe that they would be unable to represent any country in the Olympics because they do not belong to any country.

The decision by the IOC to allow an athlete to compete without a country truly exemplifies the Olympic spirit.  In the words of the Olympic charter: “Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”  The Olympics are bound, to an extent, by international politics.  However, they are also capable of transcending such affairs and allowing the individual to rise above politics to inspire us all.

Marial’s story is an incredible narrative of personal triumph in the midst of political turmoil.  This is what the Olympics are all about.  Last week, I wrote that some Olympic officials seemed to have lost their way and the Olympic vision. This week I am happy to report this example of IOC officials who used their power to uphold the Olympic values and allowed Guro Marial, in his own words, “to represent the world.”

John Burnor

John M. Burnor is a 3L at Quinnipiac Law School and has a concentration in Intellectual Property Law.  John is a Student Columnist for Connecticut Sports Law.

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