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The Olympic Truce

August 13, 2012


When Gabby Douglas won the gold medal as the best over-all gymnast, many of us took joy in her accomplishment. When the storied Olympic career of Michael Phelps came to an end, many were amazed.   When Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who runs on steel blades, finished last in his 400 meter semifinal heat, we were inspired. The 2012 Olympic Games provide many dazzling athletic achievements and several feel-good stories.

But there is a deeper issue.

While athletes are part of a tradition of sporting excellence, the history of the Olympics is also politically charged, often becoming a showcase for the world’s conflict.

In Berlin in 1936 the Olympics became a platform for Hitler’s Third Reich propaganda machine. With Nazi fever rising, African-American Jesse Owens became a hero, winning four gold medals and making a mockery of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan ideology. Hitler refused to shake Owens’ hand.

Tensions were high as the Olympics began in Melbourne in 1956 just three weeks after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. A brawl broke out during a water polo match between the Soviet and the Hungarian teams.

The most tragic moment in Olympic history came in the 1972 games in Munich. Eight Palestinian militants broke into the Olympic Village, killing two Israeli athletes and taking nine other Israeli hostages.  All nine were later assassinated.

The 1972 games continued as Mark Spitz won seven gold medals and Olga Korbut collected three.

In Moscow in 1980 and in Los Angeles in 1984 the Soviets and United States, Cold War rivals, each boycotted the other’s Olympics games. Fifty-six nations refused their Olympic invitations in 1980, while nineteen Eastern Bloc countries stayed home in 1984.

When Beijing was awarded the Summer Olympics for 2008, protest over China’s involvement in Darfur, tensions in Tibet, and concerns over human rights threatened to disrupt the Games.

The Olympics have always been vulnerable to those who would use the games for political purposes. At this writing, the London Games seem to have been an exception.

When Syrian athletes participated in the London Olympics, they did so under the flag of a country bathed in blood. The regime of President Bashar Assad has been responsible for the deaths of countless Syrian citizens. Yet ten athletes traveled to Great Britain to represent their beleaguered country.

Iran competed in the summer games though their country remains at odds with much of the Western world.  The Iranians earned eight medals, making this their most successful Olympics.

From Tunisia, where the Arab Spring demonstrations began, five athletes qualified for the finals in distance track events.

Four runners from war-torn Sudan competed in middle-distance races, and five athletes represented Libya.

Egypt was represented by 113 athletes. Two won silver medals. These North African countries have been at the center of revolution for more than a year.

Israel, considered an enemy of many Islamic countries, sent thirty-seven competitors to the London Games.

In all, 10,960 athletes from 205 countries competed at the London Games. How is this kind of peaceful cooperation possible in sports when it seems impossible in international relations?

In ancient Greece the tradition of the Olympic Truce was called Ekecheiria.  The Truce was declared during the Olympic Games to create a peaceful environment for the competition. It insured safe passage for participating athletes. It was a way to mobilize the youth of the world in support of peace.

The International Olympic Committee revived the Olympic Truce in 1992. Those games in Barcelona saw Germany compete as a unified nation for the first time since 1964. At those same Olympics, post-apartheid South Africa was finally invited back after a thirty-year absence.

The Olympic Truce is renewed every two years in advance of the summer and winter games.

The United Kingdom sponsored a United Nations Resolution proposing an Olympic Truce on October 17, 2011, in advance of the 2012 Games in London. The resolution, entitled “Building a Peaceful and Better World through Sport and the Olympic Ideal,” met with unprecedented support as all 193 United Nation member states cosponsored the declaration.  Every member state agreed to the ideals of peace based on the premise that individuals, not countries, compete against each other in sports.  The competition should be peaceful without the burden of politics, religion, or racism.

The first Olympics in the modern era were held in Athens in 1896. French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern games, had a clear purpose in mind when he proposed reviving the ancient Olympics. The 19th century had been fraught with international conflict. The baron saw the games as a way of promoting peace between warring nations through athletic competition.

The renewal of the Olympic Truce seems to have eased the difficult tensions that make the games so vulnerable to conflict. I am grateful for a two-week respite that demonstrates what is possible.

My prayer is that the people of the world might find a way to prolong the peace.


Kirk H. Neely
© August 2012


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