Send Off Nationalism

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

Olympic Charter · Fundamental Principles of Olympism 4 & 6

The International Olympic Committee says that everyone has the right to practise sport without any form of discrimination, yet it has established a framework for international competition which systematically discriminates based on nationality. Such discrimination denies every athlete on this planet the freedom to choose any sport, regardless of their nationality, and practise it to the best of their abilities.

National Olympic Committees

The IOC comprises 204 National Olympic Committees (NOCs), which together claim to represent all the peoples of Earth (except, at the moment, the people of South Sudan). For each Olympic Games, the NOCs nominate athletes according to the qualifying rules set by the international federation (IF) for each Olympic sport.

The problems with this arrangement start to appear when we consider Rule 41 of the Olympic Charter:

Any competitor in the Olympic Games must be a national of the country of the NOC which is entering such competitor.

Olympic Charter · Rule 41.1

This is nationality discrimination on its face. There is no sporting reason why an NOC should be barred from entering a competitor who is a national of a different country.

What harm does this do? In principle, if every nation is represented by an NOC, then every person has the opportunity to be entered into the Olympic Games by the NOC of their own nation. But a direct consequence of Rule 41 is that, in order for an NOC to enter a team of two or more athletes into an Olympic event, those athletes must all be of the same nationality. In other words, athletes in team sports are segregated according to their nationalities. There is no sporting reason why athletes should need to hold the same nationality to compete together on the same team.

Many IFs set a limit for the number of entries that each NOC can make in a particular Olympic event. For example, in football or basketball, each NOC may enter only one national team. In many athletics events, each NOC may enter three athletes who meet the qualifying standard or, failing that, one athlete who meets a less stringent qualifying standard. Because of Rule 41, these are effectively quotas for people of different nationalities. There is no sporting reason to limit the number of people of the same nationality who may qualify for an Olympic event.

Because of this discrimination, athletes from small nations face less difficulty qualifying for individual events than athletes from large nations, who must compete against each other for a limited number of places. Conversely, athletes from small nations have greater difficulty qualifying for team events, because their teammates must be from the same nation, which likely means they have fewer available candidates than in a large or mid-sized nation.

The evidence of this is clear: at the London 2012 Olympic Games, 54% of athletes representing nations of more than a quarter billion people were in team events, compared to just 4% of athletes representing nations of less than a quarter million people. No athlete from a nation smaller than Iceland was able to qualify for any event which requires a team of more than four. Conversely, the nations of more than a quarter billion were represented by only one athlete for every 2 943 000 people, while the nations of less than a quarter million had one athlete for every 17 900 people.

Participants at the London 2012 Olympic Games, grouped by national population
Population % of participants in team and individual events Team Both Indiv. Participants per capita 1 athlete per…
> 250 million 14.9% 45.9%
25–250 million 12.1% 50.4%
2½–25 million 7.3% 57.5%
¼–2½ million 4.7% 74.5%
< ¼ million 1.4% 95.7%
Sources: Official results book: XXX Olympic Games London 2012; World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision

National federations

Discrimination of any kind against a Country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.

FIFA Statutes · Article 3

Qualification for the Olympic Games is organized in much the same way as the Games themselves. Generally, each IF organizes qualifying competitions for the Olympic events in their sport, and invites each of its member national federations (NFs) to enter athletes in those competitions. The success of the NF’s nominees determines how many athletes the country’s NOC may enter in the event at the Olympic Games, if any.

Like the IOC does with Rule 41 of the Olympic Charter, each IF has rules based on citizenship, nationality, or long-term residence which restrict who each NF may nominate to compete. For example, the IF of association football, FIFA, states in its Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes:

Any person holding a permanent nationality that is not dependent on residence in a certain Country is eligible to play for the representative teams of the Association of that Country.

Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes · Article 5.1

[NB: Although this article says “any person”, subsequent articles impose additional restrictions.]

In team sports, these rules segregate athletes into different teams based on their nationality, because each NF may only choose athletes for its own team who are nationals of its own country. Again, there is no sporting reason why athletes should need to hold the same nationality to compete together on the same team.

In both individual and team sports, these rules completely exclude athletes who are nationals of a country which does not have its own NF, as well as athletes who are stateless persons, from competing in that sport. There is no sporting reason why an athlete should be excluded from participating in a sport solely because his or her country of nationality has not established its own bureaucracy for that sport.

Some IFs allow athletes to become eligible to represent an NF after residing in its country for a certain length of time, often two years, regardless of citizenship or nationality. Although this is perhaps better than nationality discrimination, it is still a form of arbitrary discrimination that builds barriers between nations. Under this type of rule, an athlete who moves from one country to another can become ineligible to compete internationally for the next two years. An athlete from a country which has no NF for such a sport must move to a country which does, and then must wait two years before being permitted to compete. There is no sporting reason for an athlete to be excluded from participating in a sport solely based on his or her place of residence.

The requirement that a country establish an NF in each sport in order for its nationals or residents to be permitted to compete has a disproportionate impact on athletes from small and less economically developed countries. There are just twenty-eight sovereign states which are represented by an NF in all thirty-five sports on the programme of the Olympic Games. The people of every other nation are completely excluded from some sports solely because of their nationality or place of residence.

Number of sports on the Olympic programme in which territories are nominally represented by NFs
Source: IF membership lists as of June 2014
All 35 sports
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Brazil
  • Bulgaria
  • Canada
  • China
  • Chinese Taipei
  • Czech Republic
  • England
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Northern Ireland
  • Poland
  • Romania
  • Russia
  • Scotland
  • Serbia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Ukraine
  • USA
  • Wales
28–34 sports
  • Anguilla
  • Argentina
  • Armenia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Belarus
  • Bermuda
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Cayman Islands
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Denmark
  • Egypt
  • El Salvador
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • Georgia
  • Gibraltar
  • Guatemala
  • Guernsey
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Iran
  • Ireland
  • Isle of Man
  • Israel
  • Jersey
  • Kazakhstan
  • Kenya
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Macedonia
  • Malaysia
  • Malta
  • Mexico
  • Moldova
  • Mongolia
  • Montserrat
  • Morocco
  • Nigeria
  • Norway
  • Pakistan
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • Philippines
  • Portugal
  • Qatar
  • Singapore
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • South Africa
  • Sri Lanka
  • Thailand
  • Turkey
  • Turks and Caicos Islands
  • Uruguay
  • Uzbekistan
  • Venezuela
18–27 sports
  • Afghanistan
  • Albania
  • Algeria
  • Andorra
  • Angola
  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Ascension Island
  • Bahamas
  • Bahrain
  • Bangladesh
  • Barbados
  • Benin
  • Bolivia
  • Botswana
  • Brunei
  • Burundi
  • Cambodia
  • Cameroon
  • Congo
  • Costa Rica
  • Côte d’Ivoire
  • Cuba
  • DPR Korea
  • DR Congo
  • Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • Ethiopia
  • Falkland Islands
  • Fiji
  • Ghana
  • Guyana
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Iceland
  • Iraq
  • Jamaica
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
  • Laos
  • Lebanon
  • Libya
  • Liechtenstein
  • Madagascar
  • Malawi
  • Mali
  • Mauritius
  • Monaco
  • Montenegro
  • Mozambique
  • Myanmar
  • Namibia
  • Nepal
  • Nicaragua
  • Oman
  • Palestine
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Pitcairn
  • Rwanda
  • St Helena
  • St Lucia
  • Samoa
  • San Marino
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Senegal
  • Seychelles
  • Somalia
  • Sudan
  • Suriname
  • Swaziland
  • Syria
  • Tajikistan
  • Tanzania
  • Togo
  • Tonga
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Tristan da Cunha
  • Tunisia
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uganda
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Vanuatu
  • Vietnam
  • Yemen
  • Zambia
  • Zimbabwe
3–17 sports
  • Belize
  • Bhutan
  • Burkina Faso
  • Cape Verde
  • Central African Republic
  • Chad
  • Comoros
  • Djibouti
  • Dominica
  • Equatorial Guinea
  • Eritrea
  • Gabon
  • Gambia
  • Grenada
  • Guinea
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Kiribati
  • Lesotho
  • Liberia
  • Maldives
  • Marshall Islands
  • Mauritania
  • Micronesia
  • Nauru
  • Niger
  • Palau
  • St Kitts and Nevis
  • St Vincent and the Grenadines
  • São Tomé and Príncipe
  • Sierra Leone
  • Solomon Islands
  • South Sudan
  • Timor-Leste
  • Tuvalu

The system of national federations creates even more barriers to entry that are not evident from this map. The existence of an NF for a sport in a territory does not guarantee that it actually fields a team in all of the sport’s international competitions. Some IFs have two or three categories of membership, and do not permit the NFs which are not full members to fully participate in all events. Alternatively, many NFs, especially in smaller countries, simply do not have the resources to establish a national team for every competition they would be entitled to enter.

Establishing a “national” federation implies that the territory that it represents is a “nation”. This invites political disputes which can prevent NFs, which are otherwise properly established according to all sporting criteria, from being admitted as a member of their sport’s IF. In an effort to avoid political controversy, the IOC and many IFs require that new members represent “an independent state recognised by the international community”, or something to that effect, although existing members are exempt from such requirements. There is no sporting reason why a territory should need to be politically independent in order to establish an NOC or NF.

Such rules prevent the recognition of NOCs and NFs of overseas territories far removed from their parent nation, such as French Guiana and the Northern Mariana Islands; of disputed territories, such as the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar; and of unrecognized states, such as Kosovo and Northern Cyprus. In these cases, athletes from these territories may face difficulty competing in international sporting events because the NFs of the internationally-recognized states do not hold competitions in their area of the country, or because they do not hold the nationality of the internationally-recognized state whose de jure territory they live on.

In several sports, the “home nations” of Great Britain—England, Scotland, and Wales—are treated for historical reasons as separate nations with their own NFs. In these cases, there is no “Great Britain” team which athletes from the British Crown dependences and overseas territories are eligible for. When these IFs adopt rules barring membership to non-independent states, they permanently exclude athletes from those British territories which do not have their own NF. In the specific case of FIFA, political pressure from Spain led to the adoption of the “independent state” criterion as an ex post facto reason to dismiss the Gibraltar Football Association’s application for membership; the GFA was eventually admitted to the European confederation UEFA after a fourteen-year legal battle, but it remains barred from FIFA. There is no sporting reason to permanently exclude the people of British territories from participating in sport.

Club competitions

Even in competitions between sporting clubs which do not represent nations, the system of national federations ensures systematic discrimination. In football, FIFA authorizes each of its national member associations to organize league competitions between clubs. However, matches between clubs from different national associations are forbidden except as specifically authorized by FIFA. This ensures that clubs are segregated into national leagues, and cannot form transnational leagues or join the league of a different nation, unless FIFA decides to grant an special exception (as it has, for example, with Canadian clubs competing in American leagues and Liechtensteiner clubs competing in Swiss leagues). There is no sporting reason why clubs from different nations should not be permitted to organize matches with each other.

This ban on transnational leagues disadvantages clubs from smaller and less economically developed nations, as the revenue they can earn from matches against other clubs in their country is much less than what is earned by the major clubs in large and more economically developed countries. The limited number of matches which they can play in authorized international competitions does little to mitigate this wealth gap.

Many national leagues, as well as the Asian continental competitions, place a limit on the number of foreign players which a club may include in its squad, or in some cases, ban foreign players entirely. These nationality-based quotas and bans are intended to increase the playing opportunities of players eligible for the country’s national team, although it is unclear whether this is effective. Regardless, these rules limit or eliminate the opportunity of players living in a country different from their nationality to participate in football. There is no sporting reason why an athlete should have to be a national of a country in order to practise sport at a club in that country.

Citizens of the European Union and European Economic Area (and Switzerland) have the right to work in any EU/EEA member state, so nationality-based quotas for professional clubs are prohibited in these countries. However, UEFA and some of its members circumvent this prohibition by creating a quota for “homegrown players”, which has the same discriminatory effect. A footballer is considered club-trained if he was registered with the club for at least three straight years between the ages of 15 and 21, and association-trained if he was registered with any club or clubs affiliated to the same national association for three straight years between the ages of 15 and 21. Each club is required, in its list of twenty-five players for UEFA competitions, to include at least four club-trained players and four association-trained players.

Although this rule applies without explicit reference to nationality, it is intentionally difficult for a player to become club-trained or association-trained in a country other than his own, and it is impossible for a player to be considered as such in more than two countries. Once a player turns 19, the die is cast and he will, for the rest of his career, be discriminated against should he try to play football in any European country other than the one where he previously trained, and the one where he is currently registered. There is no sporting reason why a club should be prevented from selecting players because they trained in their youth at clubs in other countries.

Compounding this difficulty, FIFA bans the transfer of players under the age of 18 between clubs from different nations (except within the EU/EEA, where such a ban would be illegal). A young player cannot play football in a country of which he or she is not a national, unless the family can prove that the player’s parents moved to the country for “reasons not linked to football” or the club is only a short distance across the border from their residence. In combination with UEFA’s association-trained player rule, this ban ensures that in most cases, a player from outside the EU/EEA has just a one-year window, between his 18th and 19th birthdays, to move to a country other than his nationality and become association-trained in that country. There is no sporting reason why young footballers should be forbidden from playing football in countries of which they are not nationals.


The structure of international sport imposed by the IOC limits an athlete’s opportunities in several ways based on his or her nationality, rather than sporting ability. This is no better than racial or ethnic discrimination, yet the same international sporting bodies which actively campaign against those forms of discrimination still actively practise nationality discrimination. Their commitment to eliminating discrimination from the field of play cannot be taken seriously until they commit to eliminating discrimination from their own statutes.