Olympic citizenship

By Laura van Waas · 11 August 2012

If you have a Google Alert set up with the key word ‘citizenship’ or ‘statelessness’ (i.e. absence of citizenship), you will have received a slightly unusual story in your inbox this summer. Between updates on the troubling plight of populations like the Bidoon in Kuwait and the Rohingya in Myanmar, a piece of news of a very different kind was grabbing attention on the internet: “Stateless African to compete under Olympic flag”.

My initial instinct was to dismiss this headline as a piece of heart-warming yet otherwise insignificant trivia, with no broader relevance for the actual study of citizenship or statelessness. But the report stuck in my mind as I became increasingly conscious of the compelling links between the system of Olympic representation and modern-day citizenship. Indeed, the very notion of an Olympic flag offers an interesting parallel with a long-running discussion about how best to protect the rights of the world’s stateless people…

For two weeks, every other year, Olympic fever sweeps the globe. All eyes are watching the performance of the greatest athletes alive as they fight to win medals and break records, with some competitors coming away as instant international sporting legends. Yet, the overall scorekeeping for the Games is actually tracked through the medals tables which rank countries on their achievements. Thus, while everyone is in awe of the athletic prowess of Usain Bolt and his name will undoubtedly go down in the history books, the medals he earns are formally noted as wins for Jamaica. Moreover, the crowds that gather in the sporting arenas are there to cheer on not just their personal favourites, but wherever possible their countrymen, their fellow citizens, their state. And so, with Olympic fever comes the hot flush of patriotism as nation-states metaphorically sweat it out with one another through the physical battles waged by their citizens in the swimming pool, on the track or on the basketball court. In fact, these days, this type of mammoth sporting event is one of the few occasions which seems to merit the enthusiastic waving of national flags and lead people to identify and align themselves by their citizenship – if only briefly.

However, the significance of citizenship in the Olympic context is greater than merely as a force for rallying people to support a particular athlete or team. Citizenship is the formal gatekeeper to the Games themselves. Competitors are not representing their country because they have been moved by their own nationalistic sentiments or want to secure a dedicated fan base – they are required to affiliate themselves with a National Olympic Committee (NOC) in order to be eligible to participate. Or, as the Olympic Charter specifies in rule 41: “Any competitor in the Olympic Games must be a national of the country of the NOC which is entering such competitor”. In other words, every athlete with Olympic ambitions must not only make the grade in sporting terms, but he or she must also be willing and able to compete as a citizen, for his or her country. And while the Olympic Charter goes on to detail how cases of dual nationality will be dealt with – and even touches upon the issue of the effect of state succession on Olympic eligibility – it does not make any provision for the entry of people who are stateless in the Games. So, although one of the stated fundamental principles of Olympism is that “the practice of sport is a human right”, it would seem that stateless people cannot necessarily enjoy that right at Olympic level, no matter how excellent their sporting performance. In theory then, if Usain Bolt had been one of the world’s 12 million stateless people, this status would have prevented him from ever demonstrating his incredible ability during an Olympic race.

Yet, as the headline cited above suggests, this is not the end of the story. Although the Olympic Charter is silent on the matter, in practice and as in the case of the “Stateless African” referred to in this summer’s news stories, athletes have occasionally been allowed to compete under the Olympic flag. The special category of Independent Olympian was established for this very purpose in 1992 - then in response to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, which left many athletes in limbo since the participation in the Olympics of the various successor states was yet to be settled. This year, the “Stateless African” competing as an Independent Olympian is Guor Marial, a marathon runner from South Sudan. The world’s youngest state had yet to regulate access to citizenship or establish a National Olympic Committee at the time of the Olympic qualifiers, which would have excluded Marial from participation had there been no alternative of competing as an independent.

By admitting sportsmen and women under the Olympic flag if their citizenship status leaves them otherwise unable to participate, the Games have succeeded in implementing an idea that, some would argue, has eluded the international community in its efforts to deal with the phenomenon of statelessness. What the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – the governing body of the Games – has effectively done is to create a kind of Olympic Citizenship which stands apart from affiliation to a nation state and can replace it for the purposes of the Games where someone would otherwise fall between the gaps. By extending this status to stateless athletes, the IOC devised a simple and straight-forward remedy for a very practical problem that arises because states have yet to ensure that everyone enjoys a nationality. At the same time, the IOC’s approach could also be described as revolutionary. In both supplementing and transcending citizenship of the nation-state, Olympic Citizenship can be deemed an experiment in Global Citizenship – a concept that has long been the subject of legal-philosophical debate. Numerous scholars have suggested that instituting Global Citizenship would be an appropriate way of responding to statelessness or should even be a broader aspiration for the further development of international relations. The difficulty is that there is currently no global authority with the competence to establish or enforce such a framework. There is no autonomous world government that can do as the IOC did for the Olympic context and bypass the nation-state by directly protecting the rights of stateless people.

There are still some scenarios in which states could already start to learn from the concept of Olympic Citizenship. In particular, a parallel with the European Union (EU) citizenship model springs to mind. To qualify for EU citizenship, you must first be admitted as a citizen of one of the EU member states – resembling the main rule of Olympic eligibility which relies on affiliation with a National Olympic Committee through citizenship of a nation-state. In the case of the EU though, there is no alternative route to the benefits that stem from EU citizenship, which include free movement throughout the region and voting rights for the European Parliament. No matter how close their ties to EU territory, culture or principles, a stateless person remains barred from EU citizenship and these related rights unless and until they are granted citizenship by one of the EU countries. So although EU citizenship supplements and transcends nation-state citizenship, the European Union has not succeeded in separating the two. States thereby continue to play the decisive part, through their domestic citizenship policy, as gatekeepers to EU citizenship and where that policy exhibits gaps or flaws, the European Union does not seek to remedy the exclusion that this causes from the fruits of EU citizenship. Thus, as Olympic athletes continue to inspire new generations of youngsters to take up sport, perhaps the IOC’s pragmatic and inclusive approach to its own rules of eligibility can inspire further dialogue on the establishment of protection mechanisms for stateless people in the European Union and beyond.

About the author

  • Laura van Waas

    Activist Consultant
    Laura van Waas
    Tilburg Law School
    Laura van Waas holds a Ph.D. in International Law from Tilburg University, the Netherlands. Her doctoral thesis, entitled “Nationality Matters – Statelessness under International Law... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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