When the athletes march into the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium during the Parade of Nations part of the Opening Ceremonies on Friday evening (8 p.m. in Korea, 6 a.m. EST), the flag of the Russian Federation will not be present. Instead, its athletes will march behind the Olympic flag and a sign reading “Olympic Athletes from Russia” in uniforms that do not include the colors of the Russian flag.
Russia received this punishment as a result of the “systematic manipulation of the anti-doping system” during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games it hosted in Sochi. The World Anti-Doping Association began the investigation in January 2015 and recommended banning Russia from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. While the International Olympic Committee rejected this recommendation, recent revelations linking Russia’s Ministry of Sport and security services to the anti-doping violations persuaded the IOC to take action this year. While the IOC will allow clean athletes to compete, they must do so without the Russian flag.
This punishment cuts at the heart of an international competition that is about asserting national pride through sport. Flags are the symbols that represent nations; they incorporate the colors and emblems behind which the people of a country rally. At the Olympic Games, the flag becomes the ultimate representation of the nation, with the flag of the gold medal winner’s country raised highest. Images of the victorious athletes in their uniforms, singing their anthem while watching their flag hoisted, are reproduced globally and can become iconic pictures.
This symbolism has made debates about flags and emblems central to Olympic history, revealing how the Games are not just about sport but about international projections of power.
A century ago, the Olympics offered an opportunity for an assertion of a regional identity even during the age of monarchy and empire. Before World War I, international sport recognized some regions within the Habsburg Empire, with Bohemia, Austria and Hungary all fielding separate teams at the Olympics.
The Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian Empire, also had its own Olympic team in 1908 and 1912. Even with this athletic independence, however, Finnish athletes still competed under the Russian flag. Hannes Kolehmainen, who won three gold medals for Finland at the 1912 Games, angrily remarked, “I would almost rather not have won, than see that flag up there.”
During the Cold War, the issue of the flag also took on political significance. During 1950s, the IOC forced the two German states to compete as one team at the Olympic Games. So every four years, the East German and West German national Olympic committees met to negotiate the details for the all-German Olympic team, including the flag, emblem and anthem.
The 1956 compromise facilitated by the IOC was the black-red-gold flag, an icon from days of the Weimar Republic to symbolize a democratic Germany, but with the Olympic rings superimposed in the middle. The all-German team also used this same image as its emblem. With different national anthems, the music played for any German gold medal winner was the “Ode to Joy” section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
In 1959, East Germany added the communist state’s symbol of a compass and hammer encircled with rye to the German flag. East Germany introduced this new flag to coincide with its 10th anniversary and to help its efforts to gain international recognition from other countries. This new flag quickly became a sticking point in the combined team negotiations every four years.
Both German governments ventured into the fray, at various times arguing against the Olympic compromise because it hampered each German state’s efforts to promote its view within the international system. Even West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer stated publicly his desire to use the black-red-gold German flag, without the Olympic rings, for the 1960 Olympics. Quite simply, he did not want to sacrifice a national symbol simply because the East Germans had recently introduced their own flag.
These debates continued as long as the all-German Olympic team lasted — until 1968. That year, East Germany finally received separate recognition for the Summer Games in Mexico City. Four years later, the East German flag officially flew in West Germany for the first time during the 1972 Olympics in Munich, a triumph that the East Germans widely touted.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union caused similarly contentious debate for the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville, France, (winter) and Barcelona (summer) about the representation of athletes from the former Soviet republics. Athletes from six of the successor states qualified for Albertville and formed the Unified Team, while athletes from 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics composed the Unified Team in Barcelona. These athletes marched behind the Olympic flag, and when they won gold medals — which they did more than any other country in Barcelona — they heard the Olympic hymn played.
Meanwhile the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — whose declarations of independence from the Soviet Union set off its demise — competed in 1992 as independent teams for the first time since the 1920s. The Lithuanian basketball team, wearing Grateful Dead T-shirts, could not hide their joy at winning the bronze medal and seeing their flag raised. This victory was even more meaningful to the players and country because it came at the expense of the Unified Team.
The controversies over national identity and representation continue today. Because the Olympic movement recognizes more countries than the United Nations, overseas territories such as the British Virgin Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa all have their own Olympic teams. Marching behind their flags in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at the Olympic Games becomes one of the few times these territories appear on the world’s radar.
And when a country fails to meet international standards for conduct, the IOC uses this symbolism to punish countries. At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, athletes from India marched in the Opening Ceremonies behind the Olympic flag in a group of independent athletes because the IOC had suspended the Indian Olympic Association for mismanagement and corruption. Four days after the Sochi Games began, the IOC lifted India’s suspension and subsequently held a flag-raising ceremony in the Olympic Village for India’s three athletes.
The message the IOC is sending to Russia — and the rest of the world — is quite mixed. Russian spectators in PyeongChang can still wave Russian flags, although the Olympic Athletes from Russia cannot accept them. However, if the IOC decides to lift the Russian Olympic Committee’s suspension before the end of the Games, the Russian team could march behind the Russian flag during the Closing Ceremonies. Officially the Russian flag may not fly at the 2018 Winter Olympics, but the OAR designation and potential for it to appear in the Closing Ceremonies ultimately fails to send a strong signal that international rules must be followed.