WHO IS AN OLYMPIAN?

Coco Gauff, the young American tennis phenom who recently went to the quarter-finals at Roland Garros and the fourth round at Wimbledon, was named to the 2020 USA Olympic team, but she then tested positive for COVID-19 and had to withdraw. Is Coco Gauff an Olympian?

At Sochi in 2014 Heidi Kloser was selected for @TeamUSA in freestyle skiing, but in training the day before her competition she fractured an ankle and could not compete. Videos of the injury showed her poignantly crying out, “Am I still an Olympian?” Is Heidi Kloser an Olympian?

Basically, the question is “What defines who is or who is not an Olympian?” Shortly over a year ago the IOC started promoting the policy of Olympians being able to add “OLY” after their names, similar to how doctors add MD, research doctorates use PhD, or lawyers use JD. But who exactly gets to use the “OLY” designation? You might think its an easy answer but it’s not.

The IOC has no strict definition for an Olympian. The term is not mentioned in the Olympic Charter, as only the word athlete is used.

There is an “alumni” group of Olympians termed the World Olympians Association (WOA). They have had definitions for their members in the past but those definitions have changed with time. When contacting Dick Fosbury, past President of the WOA, and Willie Banks, former President of the US Olympians Association, both agreed that there is no strict definition that is agreed upon. Banks said that “This has been a sticky problem for as long as there has been the Olympic Games. … However, traditionally, an Olympian is someone who has ‘participated’ in the Olympic Games.”

National Olympic Committees (NOCs) often have different policies about who is an Olympian. I can assure you that the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) considers the members of the team they named for the 1980 Olympic Games as Olympians, even though they never competed, never were entered, and never came close to Moscow. But per the USOPC they are Olympians, and many NOCs consider their reserves and alternates as Olympians.

At Olympedia we originally used the policy to only include athletes who actually competed in the Olympics – who stepped onto the field of play. Then around 2003, IOC President Jacques Rogge changed IOC protocol somewhat. Previously, athletes in team sports (football, basketball, etc) who were on medal-winning teams did not receive medals if they did not compete in any matches or games. Rogge, a former rugby player and sailing Olympian, thought this was wrong as all team members contribute to the success of the team in team sports. So, he changed the policy and non-starters in team sports started receiving medals.

With Olympedia we were now left with the problem of not including athletes who did not compete, but who still received medals, so we had to change our policy and we began adding DNS = did not start athletes. Our policy is fairly strict, however, as the athletes must be listed in the Official Results as DNS, or in the final Official Entry lists, both of which we have now – but not always in the early days of the Olympics. Because we did not want to discriminate against athletes by sports, we changed this policy for all DNS athletes in all sports, not simply team sports.

A problem along those lines has recently arisen with our data. In 1976, many African nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics because New Zealand was competing and New Zealand’s rugby team, ironically named in this case the All-Blacks, had recently toured South Africa, at that time a nation known for its policy of apartheid. However, the African nations’ athletes were entered – they are in the final Official Entry lists. Should we list them as Olympians and include them in Olympedia? We’ve been debating this among ourselves. If we include them, we are including athletes whose nations (in most cases) officially did not compete at the Games, but they could be counted as Olympians despite that. For now we have not added them.

One other thing we see all the time is what we term “Triple O’s”, standing for “Obituary Only Olympians”. We see obituaries of former athletes that list them as Olympians, yet they are not in our database and we can find nothing about them even being entered. Probably they were alternates to some NOCs Olympic team at some team. Are they Olympians? Should alternates or reserves to an Olympic team be considered Olympians?

So it’s a tricky problem. We get asked a lot “Who is an Olympian?” And we don’t have a good answer to the question.

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