What Are Independent Olympic Athletes? They Aren't Very Common In The Games

Every four years, the best athletes from almost every country come together for the Summer Olympics. They wear the colors of their country, and they compete to hear their nation's anthem play over the loudspeaker as their flag is hoisted overhead. But what happens when you don't have a team to represent? You can compete as an independent Olympic athlete, like Fehaid Al-Deehani of Kuwait and several others at the Rio Games.

Independent athletes can compete at the Olympics even when their countries have been banned from the international competition. That's at least the case with Kuwait's athletes this year. Al-Deehani and eight of his fellow Kuwaitis went to Rio as independent athletes, rather than as a united team, because Kuwait was banned from the Olympics late last year after the Kuwaiti government passed a controversial piece of legislation related to its sports organizations.

As independent athletes, these Kuwaiti competitors won't wear their country's colors or hear their national anthem. Rather, they're competing under the Olympic flag. When Al-Deehani won a gold medal during Wednesday's double-trap shooting event, the Olympic flag ascended the celebratory flagpole, while the Olympic anthem played aloud. It was Al-Deehani's first gold medal — and the first gold medal for any independent athlete in Olympic history.

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Independent athletes aren't the norm in Olympic competitions, but they aren't the only rarity in this year's Summer Games. The first-ever refugee team is also competing this year, composed of 10 athletes from four different countries. They don't all play the same sport or speak the same languages, but they have all fled their countries in search of safer conditions. The International Olympic Committee has allowed them to compete, not as independent athletes, but as a team all their own. They represent the millions of refugees around the world, and they're raising awareness of the conditions back in their native countries with each heat that they compete in during the Rio Olympics.

Both the Kuwaiti athletes and the refugee athletes are competing under the Olympic flag, but they aren't all on the same team. Still, none of them will compete under a sovereign country's flag. Ahead of this month's games, Russian athletes faced the possibility of competing as independent athletes, when it looked like their team might be banned from the international competition. The Russian team was investigated for doping allegations, and some athletes were banned from the Rio Games. Many of Russia's athletes, however, were allowed to compete as a united team in Rio.

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Independent athletes like this year's Kuwaiti competitors have a unique Olympic experience: They don't process into the Opening Ceremony beneath their country's flag, and their native countries don't get to claim their victories. Still, they get to compete on the world stage despite their country's standing with the Olympics' governing body, and — in Al-Deehani's case — they still get to make history.