Sports-crazed Faroe Islands' quest for Olympic recognition

Pierre-Henry DESHAYES
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The Faroe Islands have launched a campaign for Olympic recognition which would mean sportspeople such as Faroe native swimmer Pal Joensen would no longer be forced to officially be part of the Denmark team

For elite swimmer Pal Joensen, representing Denmark twice in the Olympic Games just didn't feel right.

The Faroe Islands native would have much preferred to compete under the flag of Denmark's autonomous territory in the North Atlantic.

The sports-crazed islands are already members of the International Paralympic Committee, FIFA and several other international federations but have been campaigning for 40 years to compete in the Olympic Games separately from Denmark.

"Representing the Faroe Islands has always given me enormous pride... (but) when you all of a sudden can't do that, it causes some emotional turmoil," the 27-year-old told AFP, on the sidelines of a rowing competition -- the Faroese national sport -- in the second largest city Klaksvik.

Competing in the 2012 Olympic Games in London and then in Rio de Janeiro 2016 felt like a "weird conundrum", he said.

Should he have stayed true to his roots and passed on the Games, or was he right to swallow his pride and swim under the Danish flag?

"Denmark is not who, innerly, I feel I represent," said the four-time silver medallist at the European Championships, something made possible by the Faroese swimming federation's international recognition.

- 'Our own sports' -

With support from a London-based communications agency, the Faroese have launched a campaign for Olympic recognition which appears to enjoy broad consensus among the population -- regardless of differing opinions on the territory's full independence.

"I myself am a unionist (with Denmark) and I can say that we are supporting this full out. It's not a struggle between us and Denmark," says Rigmor Dam, Faroese minister for culture and sports.

"(But) we are culturally and sportingly an independent country from Denmark: we have our own language, our own culture, our own history and our own sports (competitions)," she adds.

And Denmark doesn't disagree: both the government in Copenhagen and the Danish National Olympic Committee are backing the Faroes' aspirations to compete independently.

The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) charter is, however, an obstacle.

Years after the Faroe Islands first broached the subject, the IOC made amendments to its charter in 1996 which requires a member to be "an independent state recognised by the international community".

Other territories such as the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were admitted before the amendment.

In an email to AFP, the IOC reiterated that it can't recognise the national Faroese Olympic Committee "in view of the current rules of the Olympic Charter and the current status of the Faroe Islands".

Football is one of the eight sports where the Faroese are recognised by an international federation.

After being admitted to FIFA in 1988, the Faroe Islands made their mark by beating teams like Austria and Greece twice.

"Football in the Faroe Islands benefitted hugely from FIFA recognition. It would give all sports a massive lift if we could get the Olympic recognition we deserve," said Atli Gregersen, captain of the current Faroese squad.

"You see the flag, you sing the national anthem, you get so proud, then your level goes up like 400 percent," he added.

- 'Olympic spirit' -

More than a third of the Faroe Islands' 50,000 inhabitants are members of a sports club. But only two have participated in the Olympics -- under the Danish flag.

As Copenhagen is more than two hours away by plane, islanders are generally resigned to competing only among themselves.

And young athletes are said to end their careers prematurely because there is no chance of one day representing their nation at the highest level.

Swimmer Signhild Joensen, 17, has already made the qualifying time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

"I am from the Faroe Islands and I want to show the world where I come from and I want to show our flag," she told AFP.

"Going to the Olympics would not be the same if I joined the Danish team."

Jon Hestoy, vice president of the Faroese Olympic bid, called on the IOC to return to its fundamental values.

"Come on, apply the Olympic spirit. Let's participate, let's do sports!" he told AFP.

"We would probably do really terribly. But the only thing I really want is that when the Faroese athletes walk into that stadium, there is a sign in front of them saying 'Faroe Islands.'"