Ukaleq Slettemark (pictured) is a Greenlandic biathlete who will be participating in the Winter Olympics in Beijing. But, in the unlikely event that she wins a medal in any of the three races in which she is qualified to compete, the flag the 20-year-old will see flying will not be her own. Instead, it is the national flag of Denmark that International Olympic Committee rules dictate must be raised.
Unlike biathlon’s governing body, and indeed the governing bodies of all the sports Greenland competes in internationally, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not recognise Greenland. This means that, while Ms Slettemark and other Greenlandic athletes may represent their country at all manner of competitions abroad, if they are good enough to compete in the Olympics it must be on behalf of Denmark.
Greenland is not the only semi-autonomous jurisdiction to be in this situation: the Faroe Islands, for example, must also send athletes to the Olympics in Danish kit; Scottish and Welsh athletes are members of the UK national team (Northern Irish athletes may represent either the UK or Ireland). Most athletes accept that this is the way things are, and put sports before politics, but had the facts of history or politics or even the timing been different, their countries could be one the jurisdictions that have a similar political status that are permitted to take part.
That Taiwan (formally “Chinese Taipei”), Palestine, Puerto Rico and eight other places are permitted to field teams where Greenland is not is due to a 1996 rule change that restricted membership of the IOC, and thus the right to send athletes to the Olympics, to “independent states recognised by the international community” (read as: members of the UN). Existing members who didn’t meet this requirement were grandfathered in.
Subsequent Danish lobbying at the IOC on behalf of Greenland and the Faroe Islands has failed to yield results, and it appears that, until they declare their independence, it is game over for their Olympic hopes.
“The rules state clearly that countries must be recognised by the UN, so there’s not much we can do,” Brian Mikkelsen, a former Danish sports minister, said in 2006 after unsuccessfully requesting that Greenland be admitted to the IOC. A 2018 bid by Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Denmark’s prime minister at the time, to allow the Faroe Islands to take part in the 2020 Summer Olympics also came up empty handed, despite having the backing of several other countries.
Ms Slettemark has said that competing is most important, and that while being on a Greenlandic team would be nice, she is satisfied that everyone in Greenland will know which country she is competing for. Representing the country of which she is a legal citizen is an honour, she has said, but with a Greenlandic mother, a Norwegian father, and most of her training carried out in Norway, she compares requiring her to compete for Denmark with asking a Dane compete for Sweden.
Though she must remove the Greenlandic flag from her normal racing suit (pictured below), she will be allowed to keep the Inuit-inspired pattern, and she has been heartened that Team Denmark issued her warm-up clothes with a design resembling the Greenlandic flag, instead of the one inspired by the Danish flag that other members of the team will wear. Sometimes, what’s on the outside does matter.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
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