National Olympic Committees (NOCs) are the bodies responsible for the Olympic Movement in their respective countries. The Olympic Charter states that their mission “is to develop, promote and protect the Olympic Movement in their respective countries, in accordance with the Olympic Charter.”
The Olympic Charter also stipulates that country means “an independent State recognized by the international community.” This rule presently prevents e.g. Greenland (a dependency of Denmark) and Abkhazia (not globally recognized) from becoming a member of the NOC. This rule only came in force the mid 1990s, and several non-independent nations became a member before that time. For example, in the early 20th century, the Bohemian NOC was recognized, despite forming part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. More recently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognized NOCs from various overseas dependencies and territories, such as Puerto Rico, which is a Commonwealth of the United States. For the most part, however, NOCs represent independent nations. They are recognized by the IOC at the IOC Sessions. There are currently 206 National Olympic Committees recognized by the IOC, as of 2017.
NOCs are very important to the athletes competing in the Olympic Games. Specifically, athletes may not enter the Olympic Games independently or as individual competitors, but may only represent an NOC, and they must be entered by their NOC. In addition, NOCs often provide financial assistance for training and allowing athletes to compete internationally.
NOCs are supposed to be autonomous and resist political pressures and influences of any kind, but in the past, that principle has been recognized more in word than deed. Notably, prior to the fall of the Soviet bloc, all the Eastern European Communist nations had NOCs which basically were puppets of their governments. And, in 1980, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) was coerced into boycotting the Moscow Olympics (against its wishes) by the U.S. president and Government to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And in the early 2000s, the Iraqi NOC was headed by Oudaï Hussein, the son of dictator Saddam Hussein.