When Havard Vatnhamar carried the Faroe Islands flag in the Parade of Nations in Tuesday’s Paralympic Opening Ceremonies, he became the last to represent the small European territory in its 37-year history at the Games.
If Faroese athletes wish to participate in the same parade at the Olympics, they are however obliged to do so under the Danish flag.
The autonomous archipelago, located halfway between Norway and Iceland but part of the Kingdom of Denmark, is in the unique position of being recognized by the International Paralympic Committee but not by the International Olympic Committee – something that sports officials across the country have sought to change for over 30 years.
Since the election of the new board of the Faroe Islands Sports Confederation and the Olympic Committee in 2016, those efforts have turned into what Vice President Jon Hestoy describes as a “charm offensive.”
“We are very proud people. But we’re very polite people, ”Hestoy told the Japan Times last week. “And that’s why we’re running the cleanest, friendliest campaign you can imagine.
“Usually when these campaigns start they create a lot of razzmatazz, we have a reunion and everyone goes. But we are the real amateurs, the real Olympians of the world. We have decided that this campaign will continue until we have our proper Olympic recognition.
The 779 Faroe Islands and islets – of which 18 are considered major – have a population of just over 53,000. A third of the population is enrolled in sports clubs, reflecting the country’s enthusiasm for sports activities.
The territory has successfully joined a dozen sports federations – including football governing body FIFA and swimming regulator FINA – and participated for the first time in the European Summer Youth Olympic Games Festival in 2019.
The recognition of the IOC, however, remains an elusive price. The Faroe Islands’ application for admission was accepted in January 1989, with a promise to consider it at the following year’s meeting of the IOC Executive Board.
Yet no decision was taken on the Faroe Islands’ candidacy until 1996, when the IOC decided that recognition of a National Olympic Committee was conditional on recognition of its country as an independent state.
This state of affairs left the Faroe Islands on the outside, although territories in similar situations – such as Puerto Rico, Guam and Macau – continued to fly their own flags at the Olympics.
This comes despite a number of key endorsements for the Faroe Islands’ efforts, including those from other Olympic committees in the region and even from the Danish government.
“We have and have had for all these years the 100% support and backing of the Danish Olympic Committee, the Danish government and most of the Nordic National Olympic Committees,” said Hestoy.
“We would like as many people as possible to ask the question: why does the Faroe Islands have international participation in 12 sports? Why do we have swimmers who have won medals at world championships and European championships? Why is this nation not recognized by the IOC?
The IOC’s refusal to accept the Faroe Islands candidacy has far-reaching effects beyond funding and more direct routes to Olympic participation.
The nation has often found itself unable to join international sports federations that require IOC membership. Its anti-doping program – backed by the country’s parliament with a recently passed law – is unable to cooperate with the World Anti-Doping Agency, and Faroese athletes also cannot be regulated by the Danish anti-doping authorities.
“Every argument we have regarding the Olympics and the situation in the Faroe Islands is a circular argument,” Hestoy said. “It comes down to:” You cannot become a member (because) you cannot be recognized by the IOC.
“It’s like knocking on a door: you hammer and hammer, nothing happens, and suddenly something is going to happen.”
Two Faroese athletes competed for Denmark at the Tokyo Olympics – Johan a Plogv Hansen won a silver medal in men’s handball while rower Sverri Sandberg Nielsen finished fourth in the single scull rowing competition.
Their achievements were praised by Faroese Prime Minister Barour a Steig Nielsen, who said after the conclusion of the Olympics that “the IOC really needs to rethink its policy and allow our athletes to represent their own flag”.
Vatnhamar, who will compete in the men’s T46 marathon, is proof of the Faroe Islands’ spirit of perseverance towards the Games. The 45-year-old converted from his usual discipline – triathlon – after the coronavirus pandemic canceled races across the world and made it difficult for him to qualify for Tokyo.
“It’s a big dream for me to compete for the Faroe Islands,” Vatnhamar told the Japan Times. “It’s my biggest and I worked really hard for it – and I had to change sports to come here.”
Wherever Vatnhamar finishes in the standings, his performance is sure to motivate a country that has enthusiastically supported all of its Paralympic participants, including four swimmers who racked up a total of 13 medals in the pool between the 1988 Games in Seoul in 1988 and the 2004 Games in Athens.
“When you live on 18 islands with a total of 1,300 square kilometers in the middle of the North Atlantic, when you are united you are extremely united,” Hestoy said.
“We are very happy with the success of the Faroe Islands. Everyone in every nation is like that, but I think we are even more so than the others. (Mostly) because we are so aware of the issues we would like to have in gaining this recognition.
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