Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

WISLaw Blog Symposium - Why the existing athletes' Olympic entering system does not comply with the fundamental principles of Olympism enshrined in the Olympic Charter - By Anna Antseliovich

Editor's note: Anna Antseliovich heads the sports practice at the Moscow-based legal group Clever Consult. She also works as a senior researcher at the Federal Science Center for Physical Culture and Sport (Russia).

The Olympic Games have always been a source of genuine interest for spectators as Olympians have repeatedly demonstrated astounding capacity of the human body and mind in winning Olympic gold, or by achieving success despite all odds.

At the ancient and even the first modern Olympic Games, there was no concept of a national team; each Olympian represented only himself/herself. However, at the 1906 Intercalated Games[1] for the first time, athletes were nominated by the National Olympic Committees (‘NOCs’) and competed as members of national teams representing their respective countries. At the opening ceremony, the athletes walked under the flags of their countries. This was a major shift, which meant that not only the athletes themselves competed against each other, but so too did the nations in unofficial medal standings.  

The nomination and selection of athletes by their NOCs to compete under their national flag and represent their country is a matter of pride for the vast majority of athletes. However, to what extent does such a scheme correspond to the ideals which the Olympic Games were based on in ancient times? Is it possible to separate sport and politics in the modern world?

Olympic Principles

The ancient Olympics began as a religious celebration in honor of the ancient Greek god Zeus. All freeborn male citizens of Greece could participate. The modern Olympics no longer maintain religious significance and are based on modern ideas and principles.

The principles of Olympism are enshrined in the Olympic Charter under “Fundamental Principles of Olympism”. The first paragraph of the Charter reads: “Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, 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.” Thus, it should seem obvious that Olympism is centered on a human, his/her body, will, and mind. Nations are not mentioned at all in this section. On the contrary, “sports organizations within the Olympic Movement shall apply political neutrality.”

Moreover, the Olympic Charter enshrines the practice of sport as an inherent human right: “Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”  Paragraph 6 continues with “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms outlined in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Based on the above, we can conclude that anyone has the right to participate in competitions covered directly or indirectly by the Olympic Charter, and no one person or entity can be deprived of this right. The only limitation on participation is an individual athlete’s qualification and eligibility.  

Entering by NOC

The Olympic Charter Rule 40 provides that “the competitor, team official or other team personnel must be entered by his NOC” to participate in the Olympic Games.

Rule 41 and its By-law deal with cases where there are issues with the nationality of an athlete, such as a change of nationality, a change in the status of the territory on which an athlete resides, etc., but clearly states that, as a general rule, an athlete shall be a national of the NOC that is selecting him/her.

In previous years, the IOC allowed so-called independent athletes to participate in the Olympic Games (such teams had different names but the same status). In 1992 they were athletes from Macedonia and Yugoslavia, in 2000 from East Timor, in 2012 athletes from the Netherlands Antilles and South Sudan, in 2014 from India, in 2016 from Kuwait and Russia, and in 2018 from Russia. These athletes competed as independent/neutral athletes for various reasons, such as the absence of the NOC, the suspension of the NOC from the IOC, doping scandals, or international sanctions.

The increased role of the State that is expressed by the appearance of the national symbols on the athletes' uniform, the playing of national anthems, and the flying of the national flag at the award ceremony has given rise to an unofficial medal count, which now - whether the IOC wants it or not - plays an extremely important role at each Olympic Games. Spectators intensely monitor which country is leading the medal count - sometimes even more than the competition itself. More and more countries are competing against each other, drawing up medal plans in an attempt to prove that their training system is the best and the most progressive, which, in turn, shows the superiority of their political and/or financial system. This all takes the spectators’ attention away from the purity of revelling in the capabilities of the human body and spirit and admiring the achievements of athletes.

Such an approach to the formation of Olympic teams (at least in individual sports) does not comply with the principle enshrined in Rule 6 of the Olympic Charter “the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries..” and it seems that it is unfair for several reasons.

First, while for most athletes the very opportunity to represent their country at the most important sporting event is a source of great pride, for other athletes, it is not. For example,  refugees who have fled their homeland, for fear of torture and/or death. For them, it is unacceptable to compete under the flag of their country. Their “national” NOC could not enter them in any event. To circumvent this problem, the IOC created a team of 10 refugee athletes who competed under the IOC flag and anthem for the first time at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. In 2018, at the 133rd session of the IOC in Buenos Aires, it was confirmed that the Tokyo Olympics will also feature a refugee team. However, refugees are not the only group of athletes who have difficult relations with the authorities and/or political regimes. There are many places in the world where people are struggling for independence or with repressive regimes. For these athletes to compete under the national symbols used by such authorities is fundamentally and morally impossible because it contradicts their political views (for example, some of the Kurds may not be happy to represent Turkey, some of the Basques may be happy to see any flag but not a Spanish one, some individuals residing in Northern Ireland may feel themselves hurt and unhappy to compete under the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, Tibetans and Uighurs hardly want to glorify the flag of China that suppresses any attempts to show their national identity, etc.).

Second, despite the requirement of the Olympic Charter to observe political neutrality by NOCs, in reality, this is not always respected. A vivid example is a current situation in Belarus, where until February 2021 the NOC was headed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko, after whose election mass protests broke out in the country resulting in numerous human rights violations. Since February 2021, the NOC has been headed by his son, Viktor Lukashenko. Athletes who took part in the protests were persecuted and sometimes even imprisoned. It is obvious that such athletes have no chance to be selected by the NOC for the Tokyo Olympics and even if they were to be entered, they would unlikely be proud to perform under the symbols of a regime that they consider illegitimate.

The two examples demonstrate that performing under a national flag can sometimes have grave significance. Athlete can either be completely barred from competing in the Olympics should they not hold the correct political allegiance, or be forced to compete under a national flag that does not reflect their political views.

The author considers that a solution to the abovementioned problem consists in the registration of an athlete, if he/she meets sports criteria for participation in the Olympic Games, directly by the IOC in the personal capacity. Each athlete will then be able to independently decide to use the national symbols that correspond to his political views, or to refuse to use any symbols in general. This approach is consistent with the abovementioned principles.


The Olympic Games have evolved enormously from local games as part of a religious celebration to a worldwide sports festival watched by millions of people. The Olympics are the epitome of international competition between athletes and between nations. Political controversy and scandals surrounding the Olympics often overshadow athletes' successes. To remove the political underlying basis of the Olympics, the approach of entering athletes by the NOCs should be abandoned, and athletes (at least in individual sports) should be allowed to compete in a personal capacity stripping away political connotations that ought to be extraneous to sports competitions. 

[1] Intercalated Games were supposed to be a series of international competitions held in Athens halfway between Summer Olympic Games. The only such games were held in 1906.

Comments are closed