Under the shadow of five rings

Photo: David Byrd

Damiano Benzoni

They already got underway yesterday, with the football tournament, tomorrow they’ll be off to their official start: the Olympic Games of London 2012 will see more than ten thousand athletes from all over the world competing with each other. Two hundred and five flags will parade at the British capital’s Olympic Stadium, representing all the nations involved in the event. The parade is traditionally opened by the Greek delegation, which will be led by its flag-bearer Alexandros Nikolaidis, two-time Olympic silver, one-time European champion in taekwondo and first torch-carrier at the Beijing 2008 Games. The Olympic Committees will then parade one after the other in alphabetic order, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The Parade of Nations – as of tradition – is closed by the hosting delegation, and the last flag-bearer will be the Scottish track cyclist Chris Hoy, four Olympic golds. Between Iceland and India four athletes should parade without a national standard, walking behind the five rings of the Olympic flag instead.

Besides the athletes of the 204 Olympic Committees participating to the London 2012 Olympics, four independent Olympic athletes will take part to the event, the South Sudanese marathon runner Guor Marial and three sportsmen from the Netherlands Antilles: the sprinter Liemarvin Bonevacia (400 m), the judoka Reginald de Windt and the sailor Philipine van Aanholt. Other three athletes risked the same eventuality: Fawaz al-Shammari (110 m hurdles), Mohammad al-Azemi (800 m) and Ali Mohammed al-Zinkawi (hammer throw), sportsmen of the Kuwaiti Olympic Committee, suspended on allegations of government interference on Olympic affairs and later readmitted.

Bonevacia, de Windt and van Aanholt – the latter was born in Utrecht, in the European Netherlands – are all athletes from the island of Curaçao, but participate as independents after the Netherlands Antilles Olympic Committee dissolved following a new reorganisation of the archipelago in 2010. Autonomous constituent country of the Netherlands, the Netherlands Antilles ceased to exist on October 10th, 2010. The island of Aruba had already claimed its autonomy from the Antilles in 1986, although it kept under the aegis of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while now Curaçao and Sint Marteen have become autonomous constituent entities of the Dutch Kingdom too. The Caribbean Netherlands – made up by the islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba – have instead given up their autonomy and have become special overseas municipalities of the Netherlands.

Guor Marial’s story is more delicate. Marial is a South Sudanese who is not able to represent his new-born nation (it celebrated its first year of independence on July 9th), as South Sudan doesn’t have a National Olympic Committee yet. Marial’s tormented story is that of a ten-year-old child taken away from his home by soldiers of the Sudanese government of Khartoum. Marial lost eight of his ten brothers during the Sudanese civil war: he managed to flee and get back home, only to be taken prisoner again by a soldier of the North. He found shelter at an uncle’s who, though, was arrested as a South Sudanese collaborator, then he managed to flee to Egypt in 1999 and, two years later, he obtained refugee status in the United States. In 2011 he took part, registering as a South Sudanese athlete, to the Twin Cities Marathon in San Diego, finishing in 2h 12’55”, enough to qualify to the London Olympics. Though a possessor of a green card and of a residence permit, Marial isn’t a US citizen and declines the offer of Khartoum president Omar al-Bashir of competing under the flag of Sudan. He explained to the Reuters news agency: “I lost my family and relatives, and in South Sudan two million people died. For me to just go and represent Sudan is a betrayal of my country first of all, and is disrespecting my people who died for freedom”.

This is not the first time athletes compete under the five-ring flag: at the Moscow 1980 Games a number of NOCs decided for a soft boycott, participating under the Olympic flag, while in 1992 the athletes of the former Soviet Union (without the three Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) took part to the Summer Olympics in Barcelona and to the Winter Olympics in Albertville under the same flag, with the name of Unified Team. On that occasion the Belarusian gymnast Vital’ Ščėrba gained six golds, setting the record for the most individual golds (5) gained in a single edition of the Summer Olympics and winning four of them on one day, August 2nd. At the Sydney 2000 Games the Olympic flag was taken on parade by four sportsmen (two marathon runners, a boxer and a weight-lifter) from Timor-Leste, then ran by a UN transitory administration before achieving, two years later, its independence from Indonesia.

At the Barcelona 1992 Games 58 athletes from thirteen different sports paraded under the five rings, as a consequence of the Yugoslav wars. Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina had already set up their Olympic Committees and were able to send respectively 41, 35 and ten athletes. Macedonia, though it had declared independence on September 8th, 1991, hadn’t set up an Olympic Committee yet and couldn’t take part to the Games and what was left of the Yugoslav Federation – which now only included Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo – couldn’t participate because of UN sanctions. Ironically, Belgrade had been among the four cities shortlisted for hosting the 1992 Olympics.

Yugoslavian and Macedonian athletes were admitted under the Olympic flag and three Serbian athletes took home medals in shooting events. The most precious was Jasna Šekarić’s 10 m air pistol silver: she scored an Olympic record score of 486.4, equalled by the Russian shooter Marina Logvinenko, who won gold having totalled a better score in the final. Jasna Šekarić, six-time best Serbian athlete of the year, competed in six Olympic Games under four different flags: in 1988 she had won a gold and a bronze for the last Olympic Yugoslavia, in 1992 she won silver under the Olympic flag; between 1996 and 2004 she gained two silvers for the medal table of Serbia and Montenegro, while she took part to her last Olympic Games in 2008 in Beijing, under the flag of Serbia, without winning any medal.

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