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Explainer: Why are there four Olympic athletes with no country?

There’s four athletes competing under the Olympic flag, with no country to represent. Here’s how that came about.

Image: Mark Humphrey/AP

Updated, July 30*

YOU MAY HAVE noticed in this evening’s Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Olympic Games that there are four athletes participating in this year’s games without a country.

In the ceremony tonight they walked in behind the Olympic flag itself, and – on the off-chance that they win – will have the Olympic flag, and the Olympic anthem, displayed and played.

So how’d that come about? How, in a competition of 204 nations, are there athletes without a country?

Let us explain.

Three of the four athletes would, in previous years, have represented the Netherlands Antilles – a country you might have come across because of its prowess in sprinting.

The Netherlands Antilles only ever won one medal, a silver in sailing in 1988 – but it should have been two. Churandy Martina came second to Usain Bolt in that 200m final in 2008 but the Americans had him disqualified for stepping on the boundary of his lane.

Anyway, the Netherlands Antilles are no more – in 2010 it was dissolved into two smaller countries, Curaçao and Sint Maarten, and a collection of smaller territories. The national Olympic committee tried to hang around – asking to at least remain in place until the end of the 2012 games, but no dice: the IOC kicked it out in 2011.

However, any athletes who reached the qualifying standards after this point – of where there were three (Liemarvin Bonevacia in the men’s 400m, Reginald de Windt in men’s judo, and Philipine van Aanholt in women’s sailing) – were permitted to participate, though as independent athletes competing under the IOC flag and anthem.

The fourth independent participant is Guor Marial, who is from the world’s youngest country of South Sudan. He’s 28, but hasn’t been in Sudan since 1992 when he fled the Sudanese civil war as an eight-year-old and took refuge in the United States.

He’s fast enough to qualify for the marathon – but he’s not entitled to American citizenship, meaning can’t represent the US, and would therefore have to represent Sudan. Naturally he obviously wasn’t keen to do so, having fled from the country two decades previously.

This presented some problems for the IOC – which decided, last Friday, to do the right thing. Marial will run in the men’s marathon as a stateless athlete, a refugee participating under the international flag of the Olympic games.

And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?

* Update: This piece originally – and incorrectly – stated that the three athletes from the former Netherlands Antilles had qualified for the games prior to the dissolution of that country. In fact, the three qualified after Curaçao became an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. We are happy to correct this error.

LIVE: London 2012, Olympic Games opening ceremony

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