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The concept of the Olympic truce

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The idea of an Olympic truce owes its origin to the ancient Greek concept of Ekecheiria or truce (literally ‘holding of hands’). This principle was invoked before and during each ancient Olympics to ensure that those travelling to and competing in the Games were granted safe passage at a time of war. It is popularly believed that battles were suspended between the rival Greek states during the period of the Games, and although such claims have been challenged, the idea that sport can bring peace where other initiatives have failed continues to be a powerful one.

The creators and supporters of the Olympic Games revival at the end of the nineteenth century expressed similar ideas about sport’s power to bring about international harmony. For Pierre de Coubertin the harnessing of the vigour and vitality of youth to peaceful pursuits was of immense significance, and made up a large part of his justification for holding an international games event. He believed that the Olympics might be “a potent, if indirect factor in securing universal peace” and postulated that “peace could be the product only of a better world; a better world could be brought about only by better individuals; and better individuals could be developed only by the give and take, the buffering and battering, the stress and strain of free competition”.

Olympism – the moving spirit behind the Games - is frequently invoked as the raison d’etre of the Olympics and Paralympics. The IOC defines its peace aspects thus:

‘The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity’

Other proponents of the Games revival expressed similar sentiments. Theodore Cook – the chronicler of the 1908 Games in London – thought the Olympic Games could be a “factor in international goodwill, in the progress, and the mutual understanding of the peoples of the world”.

The United Nations has explicitly recognised "the potential contribution that sport can make towards achieving the UN Millennium development goals". It sees the world of sport as providing a natural partnership for the organisation, stressing that "sport can cut across barriers that divide societies". Its Inter Agency Task Force on Sport for Development and Peace includes bodies such as the ILO, WHO, UNESCO and UNICEF, all of which have had experience in using sport to further their goals, and which have witnessed sport’s "convening power" and ability to communicate values like honesty, respect, cooperation and empathy on a local as well as a global level. From 1993 onwards the UN General Assembly has endorsed the Olympic Truce in advance of each Olympic Games. There has also been reciprocity between organising bodies, with UNEP working with the IOC to make the environment the third plank in the Olympic platform, alongside sport and culture. See the relevant full text UN documents online via our bibliography of UN and British Library Olympic Truce materials.

Ideas about giving sport a prominent role in the brokering of international understanding resurfaced in the early 1990s with gratifying success in war-torn areas such as Sarajevo, Sudan, and Georgia, where opposing factions accepted the Olympic Truce period. The concept has been supported since 1993 by a resolution of the General Assembly, and the UN augmented the trend by declaring 1994 “The International Year of Sport and the Olympic Ideal”. In 1999, as many as 180 UN member states sponsored a resolution for an Olympic Truce during the Sydney Olympic Games of 2000 and a major breakthrough came in 2009 when the IOC was granted Observer status at the UN General Assembly. This arrangement allowed it to speak at the Assembly and to take part in consultations. Thanks to its higher profile, the Olympic Truce is now part of each host country’s preparations for the Games. On 31st March 2011, Lord Bates asked the UK government for details of its plans for the Olympic Truce for London 2012. See the details in Hansard.

The Olympic and Paralympic Games are mega events which provide ideal channels for communicating aspirations like peace (although these same attributes can also render them vulnerable). Now it is hoped that the Olympic Truce will take on an even higher profile and will become a practical tool in bringing antagonistic factions together.

Download '16 days: the role of the Olympic truce in the toolkit for peace' published by the think tank Demos.

 

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Bibliography of UN & British Library Olympic Truce materials (PDF 71.98KB) PDF file

 

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