Philip Barker

Last week, triathlon became the latest to stir sport’s alphabet soup. In a sport known for rapid changeovers between swim-bike-run, it entered the water as the International Triathlon Union or ITU and finished up as the "World Triathlon."

Federation President Marisol Casado insisted "the message behind the new name could not be clearer. It represents everything we stand for - innovation, ambition, collaboration and equality."

A brief count reveals that around a third of Olympic federations have changed their name in the new millennium.

In 2017, the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) became simply World Taekwondo, arguably the first to make a change because of social media.

They explained: "In the digital age, the acronym of our federation has developed negative connotations unrelated to our organisation and so it was important that we rebranded to better engage with our fans.

"World Taekwondo is distinctive and simple to understand and reinforces the global nature of our sport. Our vision is taekwondo for all and as World Taekwondo we are confident we can build on our success to date and achieve that vision," insisted Federation President Chungwon Choue.

It had perhaps escaped their notice that many years before, American servicemen had used the call sign "Whisky Tango Foxtrot" as a euphemism for an expletive that needs no elaboration here.

The oldest Olympic combat sport has also had a name change. An international governing body for wrestling was founded in 1905. By the 1950s, this had become known as the Federation Internationale de Lutte Associee (FILA).

Since September 2014 it has been United World Wrestling (UWW).

The name change came less than a year after its Olympic future had come under threat. There was considerable distress that a sport which had featured in the Olympic Games of antiquity in Olympia and at the first modern Olympics might be about to lose its place on the programme.

Last year in Doha, athletics formally jettisoned the initials IAAF for World Athletics. Back in 1912 the letters stood for International Amateur Athletics Federation and the emblem was an elegant statuette.

Triathlon became the latest Federation to announce a rebrand as it changed its name to World Triathlon ©Getty Images
Triathlon became the latest Federation to announce a rebrand as it changed its name to World Triathlon ©Getty Images

When the amateur part no longer rang true in a more professional era, it was changed in 2001 to International Association of Athletics Federations and the statuette replaced by a "modern” stylised logo.

Now there is a completely new "visual identity" which is certain to polarise opinion.

World Athletics President Lord Coe explained: "As long as I can remember, and certainly since becoming an IAAF Council member in 2003, whenever anyone has asked me what organisation I am involved with, it then takes three or four minutes to explain what it means."

The use of the word "World" had caused consternation among some French speaking nations. The word International is universal to French, English and many other languages used widely across the globe.

"World" is less so. Some have even described it as merely trendy. For others "world" has echoes of science fiction.

Name changes are part of what the marketing men call a "rebrand." This is invariably accompanied by some earnest buzz words from the relevant official.

In 1894, When Pierre de Coubertin spoke at the Sorbonne in Paris of his desire to revive the Olympics, the earnest words came in French. Clause 23 of the Olympic Charter still states: "’That in the case of divergence between the French and English text of the Charter and any other Olympic document, the French text shall prevail."

In the early years federations such as football’s world governing body FIFA, founded in 1904 were expressed in French.

The newest Olympic abbreviation to be used next year in Tokyo will also please the Francophone community.

The abbreviation EOR will flash up when the team of refugees follow Greece into the stadium at the start of the Athletes Parade.

In a statement, the International Olympic Committee said: "The IOC Refugee Olympic Team will compete in Tokyo under the acronym EOR which stands for Equipe Olympique des Réfugiés.”

The Refugee Olympic Team will be competing at Tokyo 2020 under the acronym EOR or Equipe Olympique des Refugies   ©Getty Images
The Refugee Olympic Team will be competing at Tokyo 2020 under the acronym EOR or Equipe Olympique des Refugies ©Getty Images

This was a departure from Rio 2016 where the term Refugee Olympic Team was employed. The resulting ROT acronym was unfortunate to say the least.

Those three line abbreviations have been used in one form or another since the 1950s and are now an essential part of the television graphic package for television broadcasters along with the appropriate national flag. Olympic historians Bill Mallon and Ove Karlsson estimate that since country abbreviations were first used in the early 1950s, almost half of the nations have had their three letter moniker altered at least once.

The abbreviation for the Dutch team has been changed no fewer than seven times.

It took a while for them to become universal. Even in the late eighties there was still confusion. The Olympic world abbreviated Nigeria to NGR, but Athletics used the letters NIG. which also happened to be the acronym for Niger.

As the world has changed, there were some which became obsolete. GDR for German Democratic (East Germany) and URS (Soviet Union) were always prominent before 1990 when the Iron curtain fell. 

Athletes from former Soviet nations took part in the 1992 Olympics as members of a "unified team." The abbreviation was EUN for Équipe unifiée. In football, the abbreviation CIS for Commonwealth of Independent States was used when the former Soviet team took part in Euro 92. The name did not bring them luck as they finished bottom of their group.

During the years of boycott, many had suggested that athletes in affected countries might take part as individuals under the Olympic flag. In 1992 Serbian shooters Jasna Sekaric, Aranka Binder and Stevan Pletikosic all won medals as independent Olympic participants (IOP).

In 2000, a small team from East Timor competed as individuals IOA. In 2012, South Sudanese runner Guor Marial also competed under the same acronym.

Later the category was deployed to allow athletes to compete where their National Olympic Committee had been suspended.

"The IOC and its Athletes’ Commission have worked together to ensure that athletes in similar situations were able to train and compete as normal and, in cases where athletes qualified for the Olympic Games, could compete under the Olympic flag," said the IOC.

Athletes from India were able to compete under this designation at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.

Invited Russian athletes, who demonstrated they were clean, competed at Pyeongchang 2018 under the banner "Olympic Athletes from Russia" ©Getty Images
Invited Russian athletes, who demonstrated they were clean, competed at Pyeongchang 2018 under the banner "Olympic Athletes from Russia" ©Getty Images

Kuwait’s Feehad Al-Dehani won double trap gold in Rio as an IOA.

Later when Russia was embroiled in a doping scandal, it was agreed that those who had demonstrated they were "clean" would be able to compete.

“These invited athletes will participate, be it in individual or team competitions, in the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018 under the name "Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)" .They were forbidden from displaying the Russian flag or singing their national anthem in public but IOC member Dick Pound was among the critics. He described the measures against Russia as "only a gentle slap on the wrist."

It was also in Pyeongchang at the Winter Olympics that the two Koreas united symbolically under the peninsula flag and the ice hockey team included players from North and South of the 38th parallel.

They used the French name for Korea which is La Corée. This meant that the acronym was ‘COR’ which is a colloquial expression of surprise in the East End of London. 

In the wake of the latest IOC Executive Board meeting, the letters BLR for Belarus could well be missing from Tokyo next year.

This week IOC President Thomas Bach revealed concerns over the behaviour of the Belarus National Olympic Committee which is led by state President Alexander Lukashenko.

“The IOC has subsequently received various other individual athlete complaints relating to undue politically motivated pressure exerted on the athlete community by the NOC or its member federations.”

It had also learned that Olympic basketball player Yelena Leuchanka had been given a prison sentence for her opposition to the President.

The IOC have decided to "continue and strengthen the investigation to determine whether the NOC is fulfilling its obligations towards its athletes as per the Olympic Charter."

At the planned Opening Ceremony in Tokyo next year, the next two hosts of the Olympic Games will enter immediately before the host nation. The IOC insisted this will "increase the special focus that future hosts already enjoy over the course of their Games preparations by giving them prominence in the stadium and among global audiences during Opening Ceremonies."

As Los Angeles will stage the 2028 Games, it means that the United States of America will be the penultimate team in the stadium. Their acronym remains unchanged as USA but in June 2019 the United States Olympic Committee formally added the word Paralympic to their official name.

USOPC head Susanne Lyons said at the time: "This is a proud day for Paralympic and Olympic sport in the United States and a change that is representative of our organisation’s commitment to inclusivity. While the name is new, our dedication to Paralympics is an established value." It  was one rebranding that has drawn no complaint.