Olympics: missing a peace of the action

Posted on July 12, 2012

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Renewed global longing for peace and conflict resolution, but can the Olympics still make a contribution?

The ‘Olympics and World Peace’ is a historic and lofty ideal negated by the ‘win at all cost’ mentality of modern sport.

The best way to ‘place the Olympics at the service of peace-building’, if such a thing were possible, says La Trobe University sociologist Ramón Spaaij, is to emphasise values of sportsmanship, universal participation, mutual respect and intercultural dialogue.

Dr Spaaij is co-editor (with Cindy Burleson) of a new book The Olympic Movement and the Sport of Peacemaking (Routledge).  He says systemic human suffering in armed conflicts such as Syria’s has renewed global longing for peace and conflict resolution.

He proposes a more ‘decentralised and intercultural’ approach in which the Olympics engage in a progressive, reflexive way with social movements and community organisations. Only then will the movement have any chance of furthering its oft-stated ideal as an agent of global peace and goodwill.

For many years, Dr Spaaij explains, the Olympic movement has been expressing its aspiration to promote world peace and peaceful co-existence. The Olympic Charter recognises peace as a central tenet of Olympism.  This aspiration has long historical roots, going back the Olympic Truce, which was at the heart of the ancient Olympic Games.

‘From what we know now, it seems that the ancient Olympic Truce was not based on the conception of war as morally repugnant, but rather on pragmatic reasons: the games had to go on.’

Window of opportunity

Dr Spaaij writes: ‘Just as the ancient Olympics temporarily neutralised at least some of the political discord and promoted an atmosphere of mutual recognition, so the modern Olympics were to serve as a meeting place where prejudice and ignorance could be overcome and international understanding and solidarity be promoted.

Dr Spaaij: critics less impressed with peace building effort

‘The Olympic Truce is clearly not a panacea for war and armed conflict. However, it does offer a window of opportunity within which small gains can be made towards mutual recognition and solidarity. The concessions that have been made in the name of the Olympic Truce are a noteworthy.

‘These include ceasefire arrangements which facilitated the supply of humanitarian aid to war-torn areas in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iran. The Olympic Truce has also inspired North and South Korean athletes to parade together under the same flag at the opening ceremonies of the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics.

‘But critics have been less impressed with these peace-building efforts. They believe that the Olympic movement has been rather toothless in putting the ideal of mutual understanding and solidarity into practice.

‘The Olympics’ symbolic function as a platform for asserting shared global citizenship can also be questioned in the light of the conflicts surrounding the Olympic torch relay – a significant ritual in the promotion of intercultural understanding through sport.

‘The mass political protests around the torch relay in India and other countries in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Games hit home that the Olympics can be used as a vehicle for political mobilisation around human rights issues.

Resistance by organisers

‘While such mobilisation can be seen to be a vital component of the Olympics’ platform for peace education, in reality it has met with resistance on the part of the organisers.’

Dr Spaaij says there is a ‘contradiction between purporting to be an apolitical organisation yet aspiring to promote universal Olympic ideals.’

‘The IOC has repeatedly stated that while in favour of a global respect for human rights, it is not a political body and does not get involved in political lobbying or influencing in relation to the protection or promotion of human rights.

‘The distinction between human rights (as a political issue) and peace (as an Olympic goal) is problematic because peace and human rights are necessary for each other.

‘Without human rights,’ he concludes, ‘there can only be a weak and flawed peace, because the violence inherent in human rights violations is in fact the antithesis of peaceful coexistence.’