“They Can't Take Our Flag!”: Madagascar Outraged at 2015 Indian Ocean Games

Marthe Ralisinirina raises the flag of Madagascar during the 2015 Indian Ocean Island Games medal ceremony. (Screen capture from video)

Update (August 7th, 6 PM UT): Following the continuous stand off between committee organizers and Madagascar, the Malagasy president just announced that Madagascar is withdrawing from the rest of the Indian Ocean Island Games.

The 2015 Indian Ocean Island Games in Réunion Island were supposed to be a celebration of camaraderie and sportsmanship. But they will more likely be remembered for the multiple organizational hiccups and perceived national slights that triggered patriotic outrage and accusations of neo-colonialism on the part of the host country.

The Indian Ocean Island Games have been around since 1976. A multi-sport event held every four years among athletes from seven Indian Ocean countries—Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros, Madagascar, Mayotte, Réunion, Maldives—the games seek to promote regional cooperation, develop sport and build mutual understanding in the same spirit as the Olympics. Most observers, however, would say that the 2015 edition of the Games did little to achieve the last of these objectives.

The most striking snafu occurred on August 7 following a track and field medal ceremony, and triggered calls for patriotic resistance across the online community in Madagascar (“They Cannot Take our Flag!” à la William Wallace). Malagasy Marthe Ralisinirina, winner of the 3000m steeplechase, stepped up to the podium to receive her gold medal, raising her country's flag above her head. Catherine Paoli, a member of the organizing committee, came running to the podium and snatched the flag out of Ralisinirina's hands. Here is the video of the incident:

Paoli later explained that the official rules prohibit the display of any flag besides the Olympic flag at that point in the ceremony. The flag was returned to Ralisinirina after the medals were awarded.

But Paoli's explanation did not help soothe the perceived affront to Madagascar's national symbol. And the incident drew further ire when it was discovered that the French flag was displayed at the award ceremony for Mayotte athletes.

Screen Capture of  athletes from Mayotte raising the French flag at medal ceremony

Screen Capture of athletes from Mayotte raising the French flag at medal ceremony

The Mayotte situation had caused controversy even before the Games began. Mayotte is a French territory (like Réunion island), but is also part of the Comoros archipelago, so a compromise had been previously decided upon, wherein Mayotte's athletes would be presented under the Olympic flag and anthem. The Games committee announced that for the 2015 event, however, Mayotte's athletes would compete under the French flag and the French national anthem would be played when they were presented in the presentation parade. Comoros reacted to this slight by withdrawing from the competition.

Following the Comoros standoff, a new protocol was quickly introduced banning all flags and anthems at medal ceremonies. In a sporting event that is supposed to showcase national pride, the decision baffled many observers. As Nassimah Dindar, a member of Réunion's regional council, put it:

Au nom de quoi peut-on demander à des sportifs français, mauriciens, maldiviens, malgaches, seychellois, ou, s’ils étaient présents, comoriens, de camoufler leurs symboles nationaux alors même qu’ils en sont les porte-drapeaux et qu’ils font la fierté de leurs concitoyens ?

According to which rules can we demand that athletes from France, Mauritius, Maldives, Madagascar, Seychelles or Comoros hide their national symbols when they themselves are literally the flag bearers and the pride of their fellow citizens?

Other affronts to the team from Madagsacar included the fact that several Malagasy athletes did not receive their visa on time to attend the games and that family members of athletes were denied entrance to the opening ceremony. Some Malagasy officials were denied entrance to the stadium. Some athletes from Mauritius and Seychelles were also denied entrance to the dedicated cafeteria for athletes.

The outrage generated enough momentum online that a petition requesting a formal apology from the French government and Madagascar's immediate withdrawal from the games was created.

The petition and public outcry compelled the government of Madagascar to request official apologies from the Games organizers and the French government as well.

On August 7, the organizers of the Indian Ocean Island Games sent a formal letter of apology to the Malagasy Minister of Sport.



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