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Syria and the Olympics: National Identity on an International Stage

Since its independence in 1946, Syria has fielded a team for every summer Olympic competition except 1956, yet has won only three Olympic medals. In contrast with its smaller, higher-powered neighbour Lebanon, its participation at the Olympics has been consistent but limited, with the country making little impact internationally. Yet the history of Syria’s involvement with the Olympics reflects key elements of its political and social history: its ambitious but short-lived partnership with Egypt, the Baathist-supported promotion of women as athletes and head of the National Olympic Committee and its commitment to participation in the vexed but ideologically important Pan-Arab Games. This article uses official International Olympic Committee publications and related press coverage to examine the history of Syria’s involvement with the Olympic Games, the Mediterranean Games and the Pan-Arab Games. It argues that Syria’s participation was initially important not for its medal count but for the ‘sign of statehood’ that membership in the Olympic community conferred, and that its participation in regional games supported Syria’s political positions as a Baathist, Arab republic. It concludes by contending that these political commitments have renewed salience as the conflict in Syria that began in March 2011 continues, and the country’s participation in Olympic and regional games becomes increasingly politicised.