Thursday, July 22, 2021

Parade of Nations: Which Countries Are (and Aren't) in the Olympics? (Tokyo 2021)

This is an older version of our Parade of Nations article. Click here to see the newest edition! 

This is an updated version of an article first published in 2012. To see previous versions, view all Olympics articles on PolGeoNow.

World map showing the five continental associations of National Olympic Committees, including all nations eligible for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games.
Map of all countries in the Olympics and their regional associations. By Evan Centanni, modeled after this map.

The "Tokyo 2020" Summer Olympics - delayed one year because of the COVID-19 pandemic - officially open in Japan tomorrow, July 23! Of course, 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 PolGeoNow's updated guide to the roster of Olympic Nations...

How many countries are in the Olympics?

There are currently 206 recognized Olympic Nations, represented by a National Olympic Committee (NOC) in each country. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) presides over the Olympic Games themselves, and the NOCs are divided between five continental associations (see map above).[1]

If 206 countries sounds like too many, don't worry - you're not going crazy. It's true, the United Nations only recognize 195 countries worldwide (See: How Many Countries Are There in the World?). So what gives? Well, it turns out the IOC used to be more relaxed than the UN about requirements for nationhood...

Dependent territories that are Olympic Nations

Before 1995, countries' overseas territories and other dependencies were allowed to qualify for the Olympics on their own, since many are self-governing and technically not "part of" the countries they belong to. The ones that got approved before the rules changed have been grandfathered in, and today ten of those territories hold Olympic Nation status:

World map marking dependent territories and partially recognized countries (de facto sovereign states) that have recognized National Olympic Committees and are allowed by the IOC to participate in the Olympic Games
Click to enlarge: Dependent territories and partially recognized countries admitted to the Olympics.
 Aruba (Netherlands)
 Bermuda (UK)
 British Virgin Islands (UK)
 Cayman Islands (UK)
 Puerto Rico (US)
 Virgin Islands (US)

 Hong Kong (China)

 American Samoa (US)
 Guam (US)
 Cook Islands (New Zealand)

Unrecognized countries that are Olympic Nations

These days, to qualify as a new Olympic Nation you have to be an "independent State recognised by the international community". The usual way to meet that requirement is to become an official member of the United Nations (UN). But there are actually three non-UN countries that also participate:


Taiwan - which is claimed by China but ruled as an independent country under a pre-communist version of the Chinese constitution - was allowed to stay after the communist government in Beijing took over UN representation of Mainland China in 1979. But a compromise deal made at the time says Taiwan has to call itself "Chinese Taipei" in the games.[2]

Disputed Palestine, whose claimed territory is largely controlled by Israel, was admitted in 1995 for the sake of athletes in the Gaza Strip and West Bank territories, whose residents don't have Israeli citizenship. Palestine has since been recognized as a UN observer state, but at the time it had no UN status. On the other hand, it had already been recognized individually by about 100 of the world's countries (more than half of the UN's members).

Learn More: Who's Who and Who Controls What in the Israel-Palestine Dispute?

The third non-UN country in the Olympics, Kosovo, is a more recent addition. A region that controversially declared independence from Serbia in 2008, Kosovo has been blocked from UN membership by objections from Serbia, Russia, and other countries. Still, the IOC decided to admit Kosovo as an Olympic Nation in 2014 after about 55% of UN member countries had recognized Kosovan independence.

Which countries are new to the Olympics?

No entirely new Olympic Nations have been approved by the IOC since the PyeongChang 2018 games, but there are two that have had official name changes. 

Until 2019, the southeastern European country that  called itself the Republic of Macedonia wasn't able to use that name in the Olympics. Because of a dispute with neighboring Greece, which considered the country's name to be stolen from the Ancient Greeks, the country had to instead use the compromise name "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM). 

But after the "FYROM" changed its official name to Republic of North Macedonia as part of a permanent deal with Greece, the IOC quickly accepted the new name, and there will now be a "North Macedonia" team in the Parade of Nations for the first time.

Learn More: Why is the name "Macedonia" such a big deal?

Another country, the Southern African kingdom formerly known as Swaziland, in April 2018 changed its official name in English (and in French, the other official language of the Olympics) to "Eswatini". Since that was after the previous Olympics ended, this will be the first time that the country's athletes are competing in the games under the new name.

And though North Macedonia and Eswatini may technically be the only national teams that have changed their names, there have (sort of) been two other team name changes this year. Individual athletes from Russia, which as a country is still suspended from the games over an ongoing drug-related cheating scandal, were allowed to participate in the last Olympics as part of a special group called "Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR)", which used the flag and national anthem of the Olympic Games. 

But after continued legal wrangling over the details of the country's punishment, Russian athletes attending the Tokyo games will now be allowed to participate under the name "ROC" - an acronym for "Russian Olympic Committee", though they won't be allowed to use that full name. And instead of the Olympic flag, they'll be allowed to use a flag showing the logo of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Meanwhile, the other group of athletes participating in the games without an official sponsor country - the Refugee Olympic Team - will be joining under a new three-letter abbreviation. In the Rio 2016 Olympics, the team was abbreviated ROT, for "Refugee Olympic Team", in official leaderboards. But this year, the abbreviation has been changed to EOR, based on the French version of the same name (Équipe olympique des réfugiés) instead of the English one.

The last time there were any entirely new Olympic Nations was the Rio 2016 games, which introduced Kosovo, the disputed breakaway state mentioned above, and South Sudan, which became independent and joined the UN in 2011, then was approved as an Olympic Nation in 2015. Before that, the last Olympics to include new countries were the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, when the Marshall Islands, Montenegro, and Tuvalu were first added to the list.

Which countries aren't in the Olympics at all?

There's only one UN-recognized independent country not represented in the Olympics. That's Vatican City, the independent Catholic Church headquarters in Rome, which has never applied to join. Still, despite the inclusive and worldwide mission of the Olympic Games, not all applicants have been allowed in.

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 are allowed to apply for their patron countries' teams). Self-proclaimed countries not recognized by the UN aren't usually admitted either, even if they're effectively independent. In fact, there are quite a few dependent territories and unrecognized countries that have created National Olympic Committees, or said they plan to, but haven't been recognized by the IOC:

Countries not in the Olympics: World map marking independent countries (de facto sovereign states) and dependent territories that don't have IOC-recognized National Olympic Committees, and are thus not allowed to send their own teams to the Olympic Games
Click to enlarge: Territories and self-proclaimed countries not allowed to send teams to the Olympics.
 Somaliland (self-proclaimed country)

 Anguilla (UK territory)
 Montserrat (UK territory)
 Turks & Caicos (UK territory)

Kurdistan (autonomous region of Iraq)
 Macau (autonomous region of China)[3]

 Abkhazia (self-proclaimed country)
 Catalonia (region of Spain)
 Faroe Islands (associated state of Denmark)
 Gibraltar (UK territory)
 Northern Cyprus (self-proclaimed country)
 South Ossetia (self-proclaimed country)

 New Caledonia (territory of France) [4]
 Niue (associated state of New Zealand) [4]
 Norfolk Island (outlying island of Australia) [4]
 Northern Mariana Islands (US territory) [4]
 Tahiti (territory of France) [4]
 Tokelau (territory of New Zealand) [4]
 Wallis and Futuna (territory of France) [4]

How many countries are attending the Tokyo 2020/2021 Olympic Games ?

Being an Olympic Nation doesn't mean you have to actually send athletes to the Olympics every time. For example, many tropical countries choose to just skip the Winter Olympics altogether. But this year, all the Olympic Nations will have athletes participating in Tokyo - except one. In a rare move, North Korea - perhaps the world's most socially-isolated country - says it's sitting this one out to protect its athletes from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learn More: What is North Korea, and how did it become divided from the South?

That makes a total of 205 official Olympic Nations participating in the so-called Tokyo 2020 games - if you include the semi-official Russia team - a tie for the record high number set at Rio 2016. Add the Refugee Olympic Team, and there will be a total of 206 delegations in the Parade of Nations. There's a complete, ordered list of the 2021 Parade of Nations countries and flagbearers at Wikipedia.

Are you watching the Parade of Nations? Tweet to us @PolGeoNow with your thoughts or questions!

Corrected: A previous version of this article update incorrectly described North Macedonia as the only national team competing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics under a new name. Eswatini is also joining the games for the first time under its new name, and the article has been edited to reflect that. 


[1] The five associations are based closely on the world's continents, but with a few quirks: The southern Caucasus, Israel, and eastern Turkey are part of the European association despite traditionally being considered part of Asia; and the South American territory of French Guiana also falls under European jurisdiction, because it's considered part of France and doesn't have a separate team.

[2] "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 unfortunate for the two-thirds of Taiwan's people who don't live in or near the city of Taipei. This was especially awkward when the 2009 World Games (an Olympics-affiliated event) were held in Kaohsiung, Taiwan - something of a rival city to Taipei. 

[3] Although Macau's NOC isn't recognized by the IOC itself, it has been accepted as a member of its continental organization, the Olympic Council of Asia. Macau participates in the Asian Games and Paralympic Games, but not in the regular Olympics.

[4] Seven dependent territories in Oceania are associate members of the Oceania National Olympic Committees. They're allowed to participate in some regionally-organized sporting events, but not in the Olympics.