Since ancient Greece, the Olympic Games have pitted athletes from across the planet in various team-based and individual sports to bring glory back to their home countries in the form of bronze, silver, and gold medals. In effect, the Olympics have come to be considered the premiere sports competition and the foremost opportunity for nations to exhibit their athletic prowess on the world stage. With such a spotlight, the Olympics are a chance for countries to make as much of a statement with their presence as without it.
From the start of the modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, the Games have had no shortage of bans. Whether it’s the International Olympic Committee (IOC) handing them out or the countries themselves in self-imposed boycotts, nearly every continent on Earth has seen at least one of its nations barred from the contest in its hundred-plus-year history. So, grab hold of those rings because we’re counting down ten times countries were banned from the Olympic Games.
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10 Central Powers
Following the devastation of World War I, the countries competing in the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, weren’t too keen on inviting those responsible for sparking the bloody global conflict. With the 1920 Games being the first Olympics to be held since they were postponed in 1916 on account of WWI, the countries that comprised the Central Empire—Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire—were banned from sending their athletes to Antwerp.
However, the Germans wouldn’t be deterred from hosting their own athletic competition, as the country created its own sporting contest in 1922. Dubbed the German Combat Games, the national multi-sport event occurred in both summer and winter. It lasted until 1937—nearly an entire decade after Germany was eventually invited back to the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.
9 Germany and Japan
The 1948 Olympics were the first to see both winter and summer events in Switzerland and London, respectively, and the first Olympics to be held in twelve years due to World War II. Similar to how the Olympics addressed the involvement of the instigating countries from WWI in 1920, Germany and Japan were banned from the competition in 1948.
Even without Germany and Japan in London—where Bulgaria was also banned from competing—rationing due to the war still caused the two countries’ presence to be felt. The budget for the London Games was so tight, in fact, that most of the events were held at a single stadium because they couldn’t afford to build new venues, with most athletes housed around the stadium instead of the usual Olympic Village.
However, the ban would eventually be lifted as Germany, Japan, and Bulgaria returned to join the 69 nations competing at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway.
8 South Africa
One of the most prolific instances of a country being banned from the Olympics is undoubtedly that of South Africa. In their denouncing of Apartheid—a system of institutionalized racism that enabled the country’s minority white population to have complete social, economic, and political control for over forty years—the International Olympic Committee barred South Africa from competing in more than a dozen summer and winter Olympics.
From 1964 to 1988, South Africa was banned from the Games, marking a nearly twenty-year-long absence that kept South African athletes from competing at the 1964 Games in Tokyo as well as 1968 Mexico, 1972 Munich, 1976 Montreal, 1980 Moscow, 1984 Los Angles, and 1988 Seoul.
When South Africa did return following the dissolution of Apartheid in 1992, 93 South African Olympians competed at the Games in Barcelona that same year, with Elana Meyer joining Wayne Ferreira and Piet Norval as the country’s sole medalists.
7 Zimbabwe (Formerly Rhodesia)
When most people remember the 1972 Olympics in Munich, it’s difficult to look past the deaths of Israeli athletes and a West German police officer at the hands of Palestinian militants in what has since become known as the Munich massacre.
That being said, the Munich Games were also where the IOC enacted its last-minute ban on Rhodesia, known today as Zimbabwe. Just four days before the 1972 summer Olympics were scheduled to commence, the IOC withdrew its invitation to Rhodesia following political pressure from Kenya, Ethiopia, and other African nations that considered Rhodesia an illegal regime.
As a result, the 44 athletes Rhodesia had sent to Munich were only allowed to experience the Games from the stands. Rhodesia would not return to the Olympics until 1980, when its racially discriminant government had collapsed, and the country adopted its new identity as Zimbabwe.
6 United States & Canada
Although not banned from the Games by the organizing committee themselves, the United States and Canada boycotted the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow by refusing to attend. The North American nations refused to compete to shine a light on the violations of human rights by the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan.
While the idea wasn’t taken up by other member governments in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the support for the proposed boycott by Andrei Sakharov—a Soviet nuclear scientist and dissenter—helped it gain popularity. Sakharov’s appeal was soon backed by the United States in January 1980, with the Carter Administration including a boycott of the Moscow Games as part of the consequences if the Soviet Union failed to leave Afghanistan by February of that same year.
Joe Clark, the Prime Minister of Canada at the time, echoed the sentiments of his continental neighbor. With the Soviets remaining firm, however, neither North American nation attended the Games that year. And so it’s easy to see why soon after, the Carter administration tried to prevent future politicization of the Games’ hosting by proposing that Greece be the permanent home of the Olympics. Yet, in the spirit of keeping the international competition as far-reaching as possible, the IOC declined.
5 Soviet Union & East Germany
Another high-profile self-imposed ban would take place four years later at the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In direct response to the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games by the United States and Canada, fourteen Eastern Bloc countries led by the Soviet Union and East Germany withdrew from the Los Angeles Games in protest.
As a result, Romania and Yugoslavia were the only socialist European states to compete in the Olympics that year. Despite the boycott, 140 countries attended the Games that year, a record turnout at the time, with the United States, Romania, and West Germany sharing the podium for most medals won.
What’s more, the 1984 Games raked in a profit of more than $250 million, as the use of existing sports facilities and private investment helped make the Los Angeles Games into what is widely considered to be one of the most profitable and well-run Olympics to date.
Two hundred countries would have participated in the 2000 summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, if not for the exclusion of Afghanistan. As the only IOC member nation not to participate in the Games of the New Millennium, Afghanistan was banned from competing due to the totalitarian rule of the Taliban.
From 1996 to 2001, Afghanistan oppressed women and prohibited the playing of sports. And so, with more than 4,000 women competing in over 300 athletic events, it’s no wonder the country wasn’t asked to participate.
The alleged involvement of the Indian Olympic Association Secretary General Lalit Bhanot in the controversies at the 2010 Commonwealth Games had serious repercussions for India at the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi.
With Bhanot’s name being attached to the allegations of corruption, unsafe construction, and a lack of security at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the IOC banned India from competing at Sochi 2014. That said, three Indian athletes were still permitted to compete as Independent Olympic Participants, with the Olympic flag taking the place of India’s flag at the opening ceremonies. India’s flag would fly by the closing ceremonies, however, as the ban was lifted partway through the Games when the Indian Olympic Association elected a new president.
Following Kuwait’s return to the Olympics at the London Games in 2012, the country again received a ban by the IOC at the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Kuwaiti athletes could only compete as independents that year due to political interference in the country’s Olympic committee.
Even so, Kuwait still managed to add to the number of firsts that took place at Rio 2016. In addition to the Games being the first Olympics held in South America and the first appearances of Kosovo and South Sudan, Kuwaiti target shooter Fehaid Al-Deehani became the first independent to win a gold medal for his performance in men’s double trap.
Perhaps the most infamous instance of a country being banned from the Olympics is when Russian state officials were caught providing its athletes with illicit performance-enhancing drugs. Almost every sizable sporting competition since has banned the Russian Federation from participating due to their violation of anti-doping legislation, with the most significant punishment coming from the Olympics.
The IOC has stripped Russia of a record 43 Olympic medals and prohibited the country from competing since the scandal was brought to light in 2016. Russian athletes now compete under the Olympic flag, which identified them as the Olympic Athletes from Russia in 2018 and the Russian Olympic Committee athletes in 2021 and 2022.