Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Olympics, 2 Days Out: Independent Olympic Athletes

When the Parade of Nations takes place on Friday, there will be one nation conspicuous by its absence, even though they won't be contending for any medals. That nation is India, whose three athletes- alpine skier Himanshu Thakur, cross-country skier Nadeen Iqbal, and luger Shiva Keshavan, the latter being the only one of the three to qualify on merit- will be competing as Independent Olympic Athletes. After a corruption-plagued 2010 Commonwealth Games, hosted by India, two of the tainted officials, Abhay Chautala and Lalit Bhanot were elected heads of India's national Olympic committee in December 2012. The IOC was extremely unhappy with this and threatened India with expulsion. India caved and said they would hold new elections.

Those elections are scheduled for February 9th, two days after Opening Ceremonies. Which is too late. As a result, the IOC will not allow India to officially participate. The athletes, in an effort to try to hit them with as little shrapnel as possible, are still invited, but they can't fly under their flag, they won't hear their national anthem on the off chance that they somehow win (the Olympic Hymn will be played instead), and they can't wear their national colors. The committee seems unhurried to get with the program, specifically because they're not high on their athletes' chances. Which goes completely against the principle of showing up and participating being the biggest goal. So you're not a medal contender. Oh well. Show up and do your best anyway. That's all we ask.

In any case, India as a whole is completely embarrassed by what it's all come to; the Parade to come has been deemed India's "walk of shame". But they're not the first ones to make that walk. The independent designation and its connotations are case-by-case.

*In London two years ago, four athletes competed independently. Guor Marial, a marathon runner from South Sudan, wanted to compete for that nation as opposed to Sudan, but South Sudan didn't have an organizing committee up and running yet, so he opted to go indie. Meanwhile, three athletes from the Netherlands Antilles watched as their country was absorbed into the Netherlands in 2011; not wishing to compete as Dutch, they too chose to compete independently.

*In Sydney 2000, four athletes from Timor-Leste, as was the case with South Sudan, didn't have their nation, newly independent from Indonesia, up and running enough to have an organizing committee; the independent label was used as a placeholder.

*In Barcelona 1992, as you're likely aware if you're up on Olympic lore, most of the old Soviet Union competed as the Unified Team for one last go-around. They weren't the indies. The indies came from the other European breakup, Yugoslavia. Bosnia/Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia had gotten up and running by Olympic time and competed under their own flags. Macedonia, however, was slower to get going, and needed the placeholder independent label. 'Yugoslavia', meanwhile- what wound up being Serbia and Montenegro- was under UN sanctions and the world was just generally pissed the hell off at them. They were competing independently as a punishment, like India's doing now. This would have been rather awkward had the bid process not gone as it had; Belgrade had bid for those same Games and come in fourth in the voting behind Barcelona, Paris, and Brisbane. Neither nation was allowed to participate in the team sports; all their athletes had to be competing as individuals. The independent Serbians won one silver and two bronze, all in shooting; the Macedonians came up empty.

Prior to the breakups, though, competing as an independent was rather more difficult. The historical rule has been that if your nation is able to show up under their own flag for whatever reason, you either compete for them or you don't compete. If your nation has boycotted, as Guyana did in Montreal 1976, and you- let's call you runner James Gilkes- are unable to defy the boycott and compete for Guyana anyway, the IOC is not going to give you permission to compete independently. You're just out of luck. If you're a Cold War refugee, you were also out of luck when your home nation inevitably stopped picking you to compete and wasn't about to let you compete elsewhere. From a competitive standpoint, that was essentially identical to simply being cut.

Many of those athletes at least had one outlet, in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, that being the Displaced Person Olympiad, held in the displaced persons camps of a ruined Germany; most of the athletes that took part were from nations that had ended up behind the Iron Curtain.

One of those nations was Czechoslovakia. To get to this instance of independent competition, you first need to understand how the Games got to that point in the first place. The 1940 Winter Olympics were originally awarded to Sapporo, Japan; when war broke out there, they had no choice but to admit inability to host, and the Olympics were moved to St. Moritz, Switzerland. St. Moritz would have been able to safely hold the Games as they were a neutral nation, but there was a dispute over amateurism at the time, the old rule of eligibility. According to the International Ski Federation (FIS); ski instructors were amateurs and allowed to compete, but under IOC rules, they were professional and thus not allowed. Sapporo ended up removing Alpine skiing from the program before war cut them off entirely; when St. Moritz got the Games, they made slalom skiing and ski jumping demonstration sports not eligible for medals. The FIS still wasn't happy, and St. Moritz responded by removing ski jumping entirely. Now the IOC wasn't happy, and after a week of inaction by St. Moritz, the IOC stripped them of the Olympics and re-reawarded them to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

Which is where the war re-entered the picture. Hitler had taken Czechoslovakia, and the organizers naturally were not about to let the Czechs compete under their own flag. They were, however, prepared to allow the Czechs to compete as independents.

It doesn't appear to be recorded as to what the Czechs thought of this, and in any case, any debate would prove moot, as the war ultimately cancelled any Games at all.

In the earliest Olympics, those in Athens, Paris and St. Louis, all this independent talk was unnecessary, because athletes weren't required to go through a national committee at all; that practice began in the Intercalated Games, Athens 1906. What ended up happening is athletes would sometimes team up with athletes from other countries- which is probably why Macedonia and Serbia/Montenegro were prevented from playing in team sports in Barcelona. Historical records have gone back and assigned nations to anyone from that era who didn't declare one beforehand, and the designation 'mixed team' is given for any squad that isn't all from the same country.

How'd they do? Pretty decently, really, though the records back then can be a bit maddening to look at:
*In Athens 1896, depending on who you ask, mixed teams might have swept the medal table in doubles tennis. We know that gold went to a British/German team, and a British/Australian team won bronze. It's that silver-medal team, Dionysios Kasdaglis and Demetrios Petrokokkinos, that causes the hassle. Everyone that lists a nationality for Petrokokkinos has him as Greek, though the IOC doesn't list one at all for him. Kasdaglis, though, is a bit more of a hassle; some have him as Greek (including the IOC); some have him as Egyptian.
*In Paris 1900, similar disputes result in more dispute over the exact medal count; however, what doesn't look to be in question is that the mixed teams won enough to come in fourth in the medal table. The IOC has the count as 6 gold, 3 silver, 3 bronze.
*In St. Louis 1904, mixed teams took one gold and one silver as the IOC has it: a Cuban/American team won gold in fencing, team foil, and a team sent by the Chicago Athletic Association won silver in the 4-mile team race. That team had three undisputed Americans, along with Albert Coray and Sidney Hatch. Most places have Coray, a Frenchman who later changed his last name to Corey, as the reason the Chicago team is mixed; however, the IOC calls him American. As the IOC has it, Hatch is the cause of the mixed designation; they list him without a nationality, even though Hatch was a lifelong resident of Illinois and is clearly American to everyone but the IOC database.

At least this time, everyone's going to know who is from where. Regardless of whether or not they want to say it publicly.

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