In times of war and conflict it is good to remember that sport is often an agent of peace. Sport can be any physical activity with the ability to inspire, teach values, promote participation, and encourage respect of others and the rules. There are numerous modern and ancient examples of sport as a peacemaking activity, including United Nations peace and sports initiatives and the Olympic Truce.
United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (USNOSDP) promotes the global peace initiatives of the UN focused on sports. Over twenty eight United Nations agencies regularly use sport as a low cost and high impact method of promoting collaboration and communication globally. For example, USNOSDP coordinates programs in child and youth development, gender equality, peace, persons with disability, and health. Both the International Olympic Committee(IOC) and the USNOSDP co-sponsor the biennial International Forum on Sport for Peace and Development to discuss and coordinate efforts in sport and peace initiatives, including the Olympic Truce.
In the 8th century BC three Greek Kings initiated a truce (ékécheiria) during the Olympic Games allowing people to travel in safety and forbidding armies from approaching the Olympics. This Truce was not completely successful even in ancient times, and in 420 BC Sparta was excluded from the Olympic Games because they had attacked Olympia during the Truce, and in 364 BC Arcadia did the same thing, but the tradition was observed for over 1100 years until Rome ended the pagan Olympic festivals completely in the 4th century.
The Olympic Truce was not part of the modern Olympic movement until the 1990s, although the principles of peace have always been an integral part of Olympisim. In response to the conflict in Yugoslavia, which included Security Council sanctions against athletes from the warring sides travelling to the Barcelona Games, the International Olympic Committee renewed the ancient Greek tradition by calling upon all nations to observe the Olympic Truce and allow athletes and spectators to freely go to and from the games. The IOC went further and persuaded the General Assembly of the need for an Olympic Truce. The UN General Assembly’s non-binding resolution officially established the Truce in a document entitled “Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal.” (A/48/11). Similar resolutions have been adopted ever since – every two years prior to each Olympiad. By agreement, Olympic Truce resolutions are introduced in the General Assembly by the country hosting the upcoming Olympic Games. The General Assembly’s resolutions always urge all countries to observe the Olympic Truce from the seventh day before the opening to the seventh day after each Olympic Games. The pattern of strong support is repeated every two years.
Building on the success of the Olympic Truce, in 2000 the IOC established International the Olympic Truce Foundation composed of members from each Continent to promote the ideals of the Truce, and also launched the International Olympic Truce Centre (IOTC). The Foundation has followed an active agenda ever since, such as initiating the Olympic Truce Charter signed by 450 world leaders. In another example, more than 300 celebrities and athletes signed the Truce Wall created by the Government of Greece during the Athens Games in 2004. The wall reappeared in Vancouver and in the Sochi Olympics too.
The Olympic Truce has not always been a success. In 2002, the United Nations scaled back a call for all hostilities to cease during the Games because of the war in Afghanistan after the terror attacks of 9/11. After three months of diplomacy, the UN Secretary General met with the US President Bush to ensure that the Olympic Truce finally was adopted. As Secretary of the International Olympic Truce Foundation , Mr. Fedkrou Kidane stated, “The fact that the resolution was brought to the attention of the country’s highest authorities is in itself a significant act of diplomacy for the Olympic Movement.” (Kidane, 2002) In 2008, Russia attacked Georgia on the day the Beijing Olympic Games began. However, in 2013 the Russians issued a statement that an Olympic Truce supported the Sochi Olympics and sponsored a resolution which was adopted by the UN in November specifically calling on Syria and others to stop aggressions.
The Truce has gained more attention at every Olympic since it was introduced. In 1999, no less than 180 member States were co-sponsors of the resolution on the Olympic Truce, a record for any resolution. The United Nations Millennium Summit also adopted a Declaration that included a paragraph on the observance of the Olympic Truce and was it signed by 150 countries. (A/55/L.2) More recently, in 2012, Lord Bates of the UK famously walked 3000 miles from Greece to London to draw attention to the Truce for London’s Olympic Games. This ‘Walk for Truce’ focused on binding state enactment of the Olympic Truce by national governments in addition to the United Nations resolution. In London that year over 80 Olympic Truce activities successfully promoted Olympic ideals of peace. Increasingly, other international organizations such as Organization of African Unity (OAU) adopted resolutions supporting the Truce leading up to each Olympic game. Inspired by the Olympic Truce movement, the Peace Games in the Democratic Republic of the Congo took place in 2006 to much success. (Wassong, 2010).
The Olympic Truce is a great point of collaboration between the United Nations and the International Olympic movement and includes many nations and thousands of people in the ideal of peace and sports. As the United Nations General Assembly Olympic Truce 2013 Declaration states:
“Humanity’s quest is for a world free of hatred, terrorism, and war, where ideals of peace, goodwill and mutual respect form the basis of relations among peoples and countries. The goal may still remain elusive, but if the Olympic Truce can help us to bring about even a brief respite from conflict and strife, it will send a powerful message of hope to the international community.” A/68/L.8
Kidane, F. (2002) ‘The Olympic Truce‘, Olympic Review 26(19): 5. 32.