Philip Barker

Never mind that they came away with three gold medals, many will feel that the simple fact that Kosovo were in Tarragona for the 2018 Mediterranean Games was an achievement in itself.

The Spanish Government does not recognise Kosovo as an independent state nor did they allow them to officially parade their national flag at the Opening Ceremony. Karate’s Herolind Nishevci did not carry the national flag but the banner of the Kosovo National Olympic Committee which bears a miniature version of it set above the Olympic Rings. 

"Somehow we were forced to do it," said NOC President Besim Hasani, who confirmed that the decision had come as a result of Spanish Government pressure.

Kosovo’s experiences stirred memories of a Balkan flashpoint of quarter-of-a-century before in this very part of the world, when sport made contact possible when the political situation seemed otherwise.

The status quo in Eastern Europe was changing fast as Barcelona prepared to host the 1992 Olympics .

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch spoke of "the recent and rapid developments in one part of the world strike us with full force".

The break up of Yugoslavia had seen "provisional"’ Olympic recognition for Croatia and Slovenia in 1992 but it was a growing crisis in the region had escalated into open warfare between Yugoslavia - Serbia and Montenegro - and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Serbs shelling Sarajevo and words like "ethnic cleansing" ’would soon become part of the vocabulary in the months which followed.

The United Nations (UN) passed Resolution 757 which stipulated sanctions against Yugoslavia - also known as Serbia Montenegro -  and which stated "take the necessary steps to prevent the participation in sporting events on their territory of persons or groups representing the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia".

The immediate sporting effect was that the Yugoslav team which had qualified for the UEFA Euro 92 Championships in Sweden were forced to withdraw at the eleventh hour, leading them to being replaced by Denmark, who remarkably ended up winning the tournament. 

In the Olympic world, Samaranch was been keen for the sportsmen and women of the former Yugoslavia to take part at Barcelona 1992.

The IOC Executive Board met in Barcelona in the days before the Games were due to begin and discussions continued right up to the wire.

Many scenarios were considered, including a "unified" team. This concept had worked well to accommodate athletes from the former Soviet Republics in Albertville at the 1992 Winter Olympics. The individuals involved competed under the Olympic flag..

Bosnia and Herzegovina had been recognised by the European Community in the April of 1992 and was keen to participate in its own right. Initially, the IOC invited the Bosnians to compete under the Olympic flag alongside Serbs, those from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Such a move was rejected by the Bosnians, however, who held out for their own flag.

The Spanish Government made it clear that it would adhere to the UN resolution and exclude a "team" from Yugoslavia. Days before the Games were to begin came clarification from the UN to the Spanish Government. It said that if athletes competed on an individual basis, this would not contravene the Resolution. The athletes from former Yugoslavia would be allowed to compete as "Individual Olympic Participants" and there would be no team events. Many were critical of Samaranch for as they saw it "sacrificing" team sports.

A later IOC President, Thomas Bach would be lambasted for allowing the Olympic Athletes from Russia to have '"teams" in 2018.

Even so, the Bosnians did not wish to march under the same banner as the Serbs and with less than 10 days to go before the Games were due to begin, they asked the IOC to allow them to compete in their own right.

Two days from the Opening Ceremony, an agreement was reached at the IOC Session. 

The Bosnians were in and with their own flag.

"This solution we consider a victory," said then IOC Director Francois Carrard.

"It was achieved using a highly political and diplomatic vocabulary. It was a most difficult task but it is the best solution for the athletes."

Bosnia and Herzegovina marched under their own flag for the first time at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona following protracted discussions with the IOC after Yugoslavia were banned by the United Nations ©Getty Images
Bosnia and Herzegovina marched under their own flag for the first time at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona following protracted discussions with the IOC after Yugoslavia were banned by the United Nations ©Getty Images

A team of 10 was airlifted from Sarajevo, including 3,000 metres runner Mirsada Burić, who trained amid sniper fire. They did not win any medals, but many felt the presence of the team was highly symbolic. Burić also met her future husband thanks to the Olympics after an American saw her running on television and contacted her. 

It is by no means the first time that the Olympic Movement has come in when no agreement seemed possible between countries with non-existent or at best frosty relations.

Although some saw the Korean unified team constituted again for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics earlier this year as so much window dressing, it did open the way for North and South to come together albeit in a limited way and there has subsequently been a meeting between Moon Jae In and Kim Jong Un. Would it have happened without the Olympic impetus? Impossible to say for sure but the high profile of the Games may well have had some effect.

The Olympic Movement has been criticised over the years for overestimating its influence, but the idea of "Olympic Geography" advocated by long serving IOC President Baron Pierre de Coubertin has been useful, particularly after the Second World War.

At the height of the Cold War, when Germany was divided into East and West, an agreement was reached to enable them to compete together.

A special flag was used. It was the Black red and gold flag common to both countries but in the Olympics, this was emblazoned with five Olympic rings in white.

IOC President Avery Brundage was exultant. "The United German team has been an important victory for sport over politics," he said.

The Chinese puzzle proved far more difficult to solve. After a Civil War, the Communists led by chairman Mao Tse Tung had taken over the mainland and were henceforth known as the "People’s Republic of China"’. The Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai Shek had moved to the much smaller territory of Formosa - Tawian - yet still styled themselves the "Olympic Committee of China" and were recognised as such by the IOC.

At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, they were asked to parade under a banner which said Formosa. They carried another banner which stated ‘"Under Protest".

The whole controversy rumbled on unsolved throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It seemed to have come to a head in 1976 at the Olympics in Montreal. 

A row over what name athletes from Taiwan should compete under at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal led to them boycotting the event, bringing to a head a long-running dispute between China and the IOC ©Getty Images
A row over what name athletes from Taiwan should compete under at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal led to them boycotting the event, bringing to a head a long-running dispute between China and the IOC ©Getty Images

Communist mainland China was still excluded when Taiwan’s athletes arrived in Montreal. The host nation Canada had signed a number of trade deals with the Peoples Republic of China and threated to exclude those from Nationalist China - Taiwan. This was announced very late in the day and IOC President Lord Killanin remonstrated with Canadian Premier Pierre Trudeau. A compromise was reached. The Nationalists could compete provided they did not use the term "Republic of China". They would not accept this condition and went home without taking part.

"If the Canadians were playing politics, so too were the Taiwanese," observed Killanin later.

"I think they should have accepted this compromise for the sake of their competitors."

After Montreal 1976, Killanin set up an IOC Commission to visit both the Chinas.

"’Our regret is that for political reasons 800 million Chinese are no longer in the Olympic Movement but I hope that by putting the common denominator of sport above political conflict, we may see them back in our ranks again," he said. 

This proved inconclusive but, eventually, in 1979 at the IOC Session in Montevideo, an agreement was finally brokered. Both the Chinas accepted the terms.

Ever since, the team from Taiwan have competed under the name Chinese Taipei. They do not fly their national flag but instead a specially designed emblem.

The Olympic Geography also ensured a way for many established Olympic nations to take part in the Moscow Olympics of 1980.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had prompted many Western Governments to support a boycott.

Many National Olympic Committees resisted this call. The IOC supported a modification of Olympic Charter on flags and anthems and following a meeting in Rome. A group of 18 nations made a declaration "it is their duty to permit participation in the Games by their athletes who prepared over a long time for them, that this participation is even more important in a period of international tension and conflicts".

The signatories all marched under the Olympic flag during Moscow 1980. though Soviet Television commented on what they saw as "strange behaviour".

Killanin noted that it was part of an effort to ‘"denationalise the Games" and that "in times of trouble they found unity around the table". 

Though many who participated were vilified at the time, they are seen now as those who in the words of Killanin at the Opening Ceremony "showed their independence to be here".