[This article was first published in July 2012 as "Parade of Nations: Which Countries Are (and Aren't) in the Olympics?", in connection with that year's Summer Olympics in London. The following article is an updated version for the 2014 Sochi Winter games.]
|The five continental associations representing the world's Olympic Nations. Gold: Pan-American Sports Organization; Green: European Olympic Committees; Black: Olympic Council of Asia; Red: Oceania National Olympic Committees; Blue: Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa; Gray: non-member country or territory. Map by Evan Centanni, starting from this blank map and modeled after this Wikipedia map.|
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia officially begin tonight (Feb. 7), and it wouldn't be an Olympic opening ceremony without the Parade of Nations. But how many countries are there in the games, and is everyone included? Read on for an exclusive guide to the roster of Olympic Nations....
How many countries participate in the Olympics?
There are currently 204 recognized Olympic Nations, represented by a National Olympic Committee (NOC) in each country. The games are presided over by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the NOCs are divided among five continental associations (see map above). 
If 204 countries sounds like too many, don't worry, you're not going crazy. Indeed, the U.N. only recognizes 195 sovereign states in the world (See: How Many Countries Are There in the World?). So what gives? Well, it turns out that the IOC has historically been more lax than the U.N. about the criteria for nationhood. Before 1995, some dependent territories were allowed to qualify for the Olympics, and were allowed to stay even after the rules changed. Today, there are ten such territories with Olympic Nation status:
|Click to enlarge: Dependent territories and partially recognized sovereign states admitted to the Olympics. By Evan Centanni, from public domain base map (source).|
British Virgin Islands (U.K.)
Cayman Islands (U.K.)
Puerto Rico (U.S.)
Virgin Islands (U.S.)
Hong Kong (China)
American Samoa (U.S.)
Cook Islands (New Zealand)
Besides those exceptions, qualifying as a nation usually requires recognition as a sovereign state by the U.N. Nevertheless, in 1995 disputed Palestine was admitted for the sake of athletes in Gaza and the West Bank, the two semi-autonomous Palestinian Territories which are largely cut off from the main territory of Israel (this was long before Palestine's recognition as a U.N. observer state). Meanwhile Taiwan, which is claimed by China but effectively ruled as an independent country, has also been allowed to participate - but only on the condition that it calls itself "Chinese Taipei". 
Changes to the roster
Six years ago at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, there were three new Olympic Nations: the Marshall Islands, Montenegro, and Tuvalu. But since then, no new countries have joined.
A controversy erupted last year when the Russian Olympic Committee listed unrecognized breakaway states South Ossetia and Abkhazia as nations in its database, but the IOC quickly chimed in to remind everyone that it was irrelevant. Russia recognizes the independence of these two states, which seceded from Georgia decades ago and were contested again in a 2008 war, but neither has an internationally recognized Olympic committee.
India, though a long-time member of the IOC, was suspended in December 2012 over problems with the election process in its national committee. The issue was not quite resolved in time for the 2014 games, so India's three qualifying winter olympians will be participating independently under the Olympic flag. [Update Feb. 16: India's membership has now been reinstated, and its athletes may compete and walk in the closing ceremony under the Indian flag.]
Which countries aren't included in the Olympics?
Despite the inclusive and worldwide mission of the Olympic Games, not all of the world's states are represented. In fact, two U.N.-recognized countries still haven't joined: South Sudan apparently still hasn't formed an NOC since gaining independence in 2011, and U.N. observer state Vatican City, the independent Catholic Church headquarters in Rome, has never applied.
The ten dependent territories allowed to participate in the Olympics are only a select few, leaving most of the world's overseas dependencies without their own teams (though athletes from the territories may attempt to qualify for their patron countries' teams). Meanwhile, partially recognized or unrecognized states are not usually admitted either, even if they are effectively independent. In fact, there are a number of National Olympic Committees which have been created locally but not recognized by the IOC. Here's a partial list:
|Click to enlarge: Territories and sovereign states not represented in the Olympics. Light Blue: No NOC; Dark Blue: NOC not recognized by IOC. Also shown in dark blue outlines: subnational regions with unrecognized NOCs. By Evan Centanni, from public domain map (source).|
Somaliland (unrecognized sovereign state)
Anguilla (U.K. territory)
Montserrat (U.K. territory)
Turks & Caicos (U.K. territory)
Iraqi Kurdistan (autonomous region in Iraq)
Macau (Special Administrative Region of China) 
Abkhazia (partially recognized sovereign state)
Catalonia (region of Spain)
Gibraltar (U.K. territory)
Kosovo (partially recognized sovereign state)
Northern Cyprus (partially recognized sovereign state)
French Polynesia (French territory)
New Caledonia (French territory)
Niue (free associate state of New Zealand)
Northern Mariana Islands (U.S. territory)
Which countries are attending the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics?
Unlike the Summer Olympics, which all qualified countries attended two years ago, it's normal that a lot of countries skip the Winter Olympics. Not surprisingly, most of the absentees are tropical countries where there are fewer chances to practice winter sports. However, there are some exceptions (see map below).
This year there will be a total of 88 nations participating in the Olympics - a record high for the Winter games. [Update Feb. 16: There are now 89 participating nations - check out the updated map.] Wikipedia has a full list of the participating nations, complete with links to the athlete rosters for each national team. Notably, there are seven nations participating in the Winter Olympics for the first time ever this year:
|Click to enlarge: Nations attending the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in green; first time Winter Olympics attendees in bright green; ineligible countries/territories in gray. By Evan Centanni, from public domain base map. [Click here for an updated version of this map.]|
Timor-Leste (East Timor)
More Info: 2014 Parade of Nations - ordered list of countries and flagbearers (Wikipedia)
 The five associations correspond closely to conventional definitions of the continents, but with a few quirks: Turkey, the Caucasus, and Israel are part of the European association despite being geographically in Asia; and the South American territory of French Guiana also falls under European jurisdiction, because it is considered an integral part of France and does not have a separate team.
 "Chinese Taipei" is intended to be ambiguous, since most Taiwanese people consider themselves to be at least culturally Chinese. However, the use of "Taipei" is somewhat unfortunate for the two-thirds of Taiwan's people who do not live in or near Taipei City. This was especially awkward when the 2009 World Games (an Olympics-connected event) were held in Kaohsiung, Taiwan - something of a rival city to Taipei.
 Although Macau's NOC is not recognized by the IOC itself, it has in fact been accepted as a member of the relevant continental organization, the Olympic Council of Asia. Macau has participated in the Paralympic Games but not in the regular Olympics.