The 2012 London Olympics continue a proud tradition of efforts to place sport at the service of promoting a more peaceful world.
The symbolic significance of the Olympic Truce is not to be underestimated: all 193 UN member states co-sponsored the latest UN resolution on the Olympic Truce, signing up to the ideals of peace and conflict resolution and the premise that individuals, not countries, compete against one another in sport in peaceful competition without the interference of politics, religion or racism.
This ritual has been enacted before every summer and winter Olympics since the early 1990s.
UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon’s words are indicative of the high hopes that those within and outside the Olympic movement have of sport as a vehicle for peace-building:
“These pauses in fighting save lives. They make it possible for humanitarian workers to reach people in need. And they open up diplomatic space to negotiate lasting solutions. A truce is a prelude to true peace.”
In framing the Olympic Truce as a ‘prelude to true peace’, advocates often refer to the ancient Greek tradition of Ekecheiria, which called for a truce during the ancient games to ensure competitors’ safe passage and participation amid violent conflicts between Greece’s warring city-states.
The truce was quite effective: while it did not involve a complete cessation of hostilities, truce violations seem to have been rare.
But to view Ekecheiria as a ‘prelude to true peace’ may be pushing it too far. In ancient times, the truce was rather restricted: an armistice, not a period of peace (eirene) throughout the Greek world. Truce did not put an end to war; it simply ensured that war would not disrupt the games. It was not based on amoral rejection of war, but on pragmatic reasons: the games had to go on.
Significance of Ekecheiria to the modern games
What, then, is the significance of Ekecheiria to the modern Olympic Games and their ability to contribute to a more peaceful world? This question is even more relevant at a time when the games have come under fierce scrutiny regarding organisational corruption and unaccountability, hyper-commercialisation, excessive nationalism, doping use and so forth.
While reforms have been implemented to address some of these issues, their effects appear to have been limited. Perhaps, then, the Olympic Games should be exposed for what they really are: big-time global show business manipulated by governments and multinational corporations.
Surely such an event cannot have credible peace-promoting effects?
We could argue, however, that the ancient Olympics must have generated conditions for peace through their suspension of hostilities and by bringing people together to assert a common consciousness within the context of rule-bound sporting contest.
This more optimistic interpretation shaped Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s vision for the modern Olympic Games as a celebration of human progress, international understanding and peace. The games were to serve as a meeting place where prejudice could be overcome and international understanding and solidarity promoted.
By bringing together into one sporting arena people from all over the world, the games provide a platform for developing a shared global citizenship, and for exposing individuals and nations to alternative beliefs and cultures.
Isn’t this the key moral message that ought to guide the Olympics in the 21st century?
New book on the Olympics and peacemaking
The book The Olympic Movement and the Sport of Peacemaking,* which I edited with Cindy Burleson, addresses these and other critical questions regarding the Olympic movement’s aim and capacity to promote world peace.
The book was first published as a special issue of the peer-reviewed academic journal Sport in Society as part of the Routledge Olympic Collection. The original idea came from Burleson, who convened a session on the topic during the 2010 International Studies Association conference in New Orleans.
A year earlier, Burleson and I had participated in a panel on ‘sport and development’ at the 2009 edition of the conference in New York, where we also met with representatives of the UN Inter-agency Task Force on Sport for Development and Peace to discuss our research. Inspired by these events, we developed a book proposal and issued a call for papers.
The purpose of the book is to critically examine the ways in which the Olympic movement’s goal of promoting peaceful coexistence is being played out at global, national and local levels. This topic is explored in an interdisciplinary manner, with 11 contributions from scholars in the fields of philosophy, sociology, political science, international relations, history, policy and leisure studies.
The contributors analyse and reflect upon past, present and future events including, but not limited to, the ancient Olympic Truce, the revival of the Olympic Games by De Coubertin, the Paralympic Games, Youth Olympic Games, Nagano 1998, Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010, London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016.
They also provide important insight into the questions posed above. Burleson and I found that the theoretical-conceptual understanding of peace and peace-building remains underdeveloped within the discourse espoused by the Olympic movement.
The Olympics, peace and human rights
If the Olympic movement is serious about incorporating peace-building into its programmes, then it must be clear about its definition and normative view of peace and its position on human rights.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has repeatedly stated that while it is in favour of a global respect for human rights, it is not a political body and does not get involved in political lobbying in relation to the protection or promotion of human rights.
The distinction between human rights promotion (as a political issue) and peace-building (as an Olympic goal) is problematic because peace and human rights are necessary for each other.
I concur with human rights expert Jim Ife that without human rights there would only be a weak and flawed peace, because the violence and suffering inherent in human rights violations is in fact the antithesis of peaceful coexistence. A commitment to peace-building presupposes a dedication to protecting or promoting human rights.
However, as Liam Stockdale argues in his contribution, the primary interests of the IOC and Olympic host nations in producing an extravagant entertainment spectacle may trump any ostensible commitment to progress in the area of human rights.
A telling example is the increasing securitisation of the Olympics Games, not only in relation to the perceived threat of terrorism but also in an attempt to pre-empt and control political protest.
The crackdown on pro-human rights and pro-Tibet protests at the 2008 Beijing Olympics suggests a growing repression of dissent and the curtailing of protestors’ civil liberties.
Amnesty International found the repression against activists and journalists in the lead-up to Beijing 2008 occurred not in spite of, but actually because of the Olympics, allowing the Chinese authorities to adopt extreme security measures in a pre-Olympics ‘clean up’. London 2012’s security blanket suggests that this trend is here to stay.
All contributors to our book agree it would be extremely naïve to view the Olympic Games as being capable of transforming protracted violent conflicts. If they are to play a role in peace-building, they must be part of a wider set of peace-building strategies and attempt to facilitate a global cultural space for dialogue and action toward peaceful coexistence.
Philosophers Jim Parry and Irena Martínková offer specific proposals as to how Olympic sporting activities can be organised in ways that best align with peace education.
The best way to place the Olympics at the service of peace-building, it seems, is to emphasise universal participation and fair play, equality, mutual recognition and respect, intercultural dialogue, and cooperation.
These values represent an alternative mindset that challenges the ‘win at all cost’ mentality of elite sport, and they could underpin efforts to place sport at the service of promoting peaceful coexistence.
* Dr Ramón Spaaij is a sociologist based at La Trobe University in Melbourne and a research fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Amsterdam. He is the editor, with Cindy Burleson, of The Olympic Movement and the Sport of Peacemaking, published by Routledge.
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