Olympic flag

Right now the eyes of the world–excluding, in the United States at least, the eyes in the head of anyone who can’t get NBC–are focused on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. I am not watching or even paying much attention, due to my exasperation at the greed of NBC in refusing to share coverage of the Games with anyone else, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unconscionable bigotry against LGBT athletes. But I did used to watch the Olympics in years past, especially the Winter Olympics, and this week I was thinking back to my favorite Olympics, the 1992 Winter Games at Albertville, France.

The 1992 Olympics were unique in history in that they included a team from a country that did not exist: the “Unified Team.” This interesting fragment of sports history came about as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which occurred in December 1991–only about eight weeks before the Olympic torch was lit in Albertville. The final demise of the USSR can arguably be said to have begun with the failed hard-line coup against Gorbachev in August, but the country managed to hold together–barely–until Christmas, when Gorbachev finally resigned, the USSR disintegrated and the Russian tricolor was hoisted above the Kremlin for the first time since 1917. Due to a series of defections, secessions and declarations of independence, what had been the USSR on January 1, 1991 was, a year later, eleven separate countries: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. They were held together, if at all, by a loose association called the “Commonwealth of Independent States.”

This posed a huge problem for the Olympics. All the qualifying trials within the former USSR had occurred under the Soviet flag, and within a unified Soviet system. You couldn’t just take the athletes of one country out of the mix and suddenly make them competitors against their former teammates. What would you do, for example, with hockey player Alexei Zhitnik, who was suddenly a citizen of Ukraine, but had been playing hockey for the Soviet team all during the qualifiers? There was another problem too. The collapse of the USSR happened so fast that the Olympic committees of the new CIS countries had no time to become accredited members of the International Olympic Committee before the games started in France.

The climactic moment of the ice hockey battle at the 1992 Winter Olympics was the game-winning goal scored by Vyacheslav Bykov, which carried the Unified Team ahead of Canada. [Video is in French.]

Thus, the (former) Soviets had two options: either sit this one out and wait two years–the first staggered winter/summer Olympics would begin with the 1994 Winter Games–or come to some sort of last-minute compromise to let the former Soviet athletes compete as one. The Soviets and the IOC chose the latter. Thus, the somewhat misnamed “Unified Team” was born.

The Unified Team, consisting of 11 separate countries, had no single flag, so the IOC decided to use the Olympic flag instead and play the Olympic anthem during the medal ceremonies if a Unified Team athlete happened to win. The Unified Team actually did fairly well at Albertville, finishing second only to Germany in the medal count. Skiier Lyubov Yegorova took home two gold medals; figure skater Viktor Petrenko won a gold too; and the Unified Team’s hockey team was quite successful, also winning a gold medal, beating Canada 3-1 in the final match.

With a few more months to prepare, the countries of the CIS had a little more of their act together by the time the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona came around, but one of the same tricks of fate that had trapped them last time was still present: most of the qualifying trials for summer athletes had also occurred during 1991. Thus, the Unified Team made its second and last appearance at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in the summer.

By 1994, the next Winter Olympics, the CIS countries had gone their separate ways, and the Unified Team was no more. Now competition among the former Soviet countries is pretty ferocious, but that is probably as it should be. Still, it’s an interesting thought experiment, what might happen to a country’s Olympic team if that country suddenly ceases to exist. If the modern Olympics had existed in 1864, perhaps, might the International Olympic Committee forced American Olympiads from the Union and the Confederacy to compete as one “Unified Team”? Are sports more powerful than politics? Sometimes, perhaps.

The image of the Olympic flag is by Wikimedia Commons user NativeForeigner and is used (cropped) and relicensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.