Four athletes in London faced similar problems because of their nations' unresolved status in the world, and are competing under the Olympic flag. Three hail from Curacao and found themselves in a bind following the 2010 breakup of the Netherlands Antilles. Despite not having an approved hometown flag, they made a memorable entrance at the opening ceremony, dancing, jumping and striking the occasional Usain Bolt-style pose.
Guor Marial doesn't have a country, either. The marathoner, who will compete Sunday on the final day of the Olympics, was given the right to compete under the Olympic flag after fleeing a refugee camp in what is now South Sudan. The world's newest country doesn't yet have an Olympic team. Marial is a permanent resident of the United States but not yet a citizen.
"Representing the five rings is the best," he said. "I'm representing the whole world, basically."
One has to wonder how that might have struck the founder of the modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The French aristocrat proposed reviving the Olympic movement in 1892, hoping to rally French pride through sports after the country's devastating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. The first modern Olympics was staged four years later.
De Coubertin saw international sports "as a less tragically inclined form of national rivalry," says Alan Tomlinson, professor of leisure studies at the University of Brighton and editor of "Watching the Olympics: Politics, Power and Representation."
De Coubertin came up with the Olympic motto — "Faster, higher, stronger" — thinking it would inspire individual competitors. "But it's also a motto that can be used at a national level," Tomlinson notes.
In fact much of the symbolism surrounding de Coubertin's revived Olympics laid bare the nationalistic sentiments at play at the turn of the last century, albeit under the guise of peaceful internationalism.
The five interlocking rings of the Olympic flag represent the union of the five continents, but the blue, yellow, green, red and black colors of the rings were selected because they were found in the national flags of Olympic countries at the 1920 Antwerp Games, where the flag made its debut.
The original Athlete's Oath, also introduced in Antwerp, was changed in the 1960s to remove the original pledge to compete "for the honor of our country." Athletes now pledge to compete "for the honor of our teams."
"We want individuals to bring out the best in themselves through sport," says Mark Adams, an IOC spokesman. "The whole nationalism thing doesn't come into it for us. That happens to be the world we live in and how sport is organized, but it's not our mission."
There is perhaps good reason why the IOC plays down the nationalistic aspect of the Olympics: It happens anyway.
Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Games to try to exalt the superiority of his Aryan athletes, but was upstaged by Jesse Owens' four gold medals. The decade that followed showed just what nationalism meant in the hands of someone like Hitler.
The Cold War produced the tit-for-tat boycotts of the 1980s: The U.S. persuaded more than 60 other nations to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets responded in kind four years later by boycotting the Los Angeles Games.
Even today, Taiwan isn't allowed to use its flag or its name at the Olympics. The self-governing island, which China regards as a renegade province, is identified as Chinese Taipei.
Despite the inevitable intrusion of politics and national pride in sports, de Coubertin was convinced that the Olympics could contribute to international peace, says John Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.
"The idea of having rotating host countries was that you will stay in a country that you may be conditioned to hate — but may be conditioned to respect" after the experience, he notes.