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Owen: The Olympic Truce – What is it Really Good For?

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Athletes carry flags of their respective countries at the Pyeongchang 2018 Closing Ceremony. Photo: Reuters

This will probably seem like an odd time for me to write critically about the Olympic truce.

Haven’t we just witnessed the Peace Olympics, with tensions on the Korean peninsula perceptibly reduced as Northern dignitaries soaked up the atmosphere in Southern stadia and the two halves of the divided country joined forces for ceremonies and on the ice-hockey rink?

Well, yes. Nevertheless, the images and reports that started flashing around the world last week from eastern Ghouta in Syria leave me feeling compelled to do so.

While the contest for Winter Olympic medals continued, on the other side of the same continent, a doctor in the besieged region spoke of “standing before the massacre of the 21st century.”

This is not the first time something like this has happened.

In 2014, Russia intervened in Ukraine between the Sochi Olympics and Paralympics.

Fighting in Syria was in full sway on the first day of the London Olympics in 2012, with the BBC reporting a day-long attack against rebels in Aleppo by Syrian forces.

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia on the day of the Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing.

The truth is while sport can, of course, provide common ground to help people from different cultures make common cause, and while the intentions of those who revived the ancient Olympic truce were doubtless impeccable, national leaders will do what they judge to be in their and their countries’ best interests regardless of what sports events happen to be taking place at the time.

If, heaven forbid, they think there is some compelling need to go to war while the Olympic Games are ongoing, chances are a piece of paper, no matter how solemn and well-intentioned, is not going to stop them.

“But, but, but,” you cry, “even accepting that that might be true, isn’t it worth it when the truce has seemingly reduced the potential for nuclear conflagration over Korea?”

Truly? Do you really think that Kim Jong-un read the text of the United Nations (UN) resolution and thought, “Oh cripes, I’d better call off the dogs in February and March?”

Doesn’t it seem more likely that he decided to use the fact – known for seven years – that the Games were in South Korea to try to demonstrate that he is not the faintly comical monster he is usually portrayed as in the West?

And, once he had made this determination, isn’t it logical that the South would respond positively, hence removing its main security headache while the world was in its backyard?

Though I sometimes struggle to follow the sort of legalistic language in which the resolution is couched, I think it stops short of calling for a truce as I would understand it, i.e an out-and-out ceasefire, in any case.

It recalls that the ancient Greek tradition of ekecheiria called for a truce during the Games to “encourage a peaceful environment and ensure safe passage” for athletes.

It also recalls that the “core concept” of ekecheiria “historically” has been “the cessation of hostilities from seven days before until seven days after the Olympic Games.”

When you get down to the sharp end, some three pages later, however, the resolution seems to me a mite woolly on the point.

It urges member states to “observe the Olympic Truce individually and collectively, within the framework of the Charter of the United Nations” and “in particular, to ensure the safe passage, access and participation of athletes, officials and all other accredited persons.”

It also underlines the importance of “cooperation among member states to collectively implement the values of the Olympic Truce around the world.”

Is it just me, or would those fine words not be stronger with the phrase “the values of” struck out?

Thinking about this made me realize, not for the first time, that I have only a rather hazy grasp of how the UN actually operates – perhaps some of you are in the same boat.

So I thought I should consult an expert.

This I did, emailing a fellow journalist to ask whether, when a UN resolution is adopted by consensus – as the Olympic resolution was by the General Assembly (GA) last November – it was assumed that all member countries had backed it.

The reply I got surprised me: it said that, no, “by consensus” did not mean the resolution was backed by all 193 member states, though “a large majority” of them backed it.

It also said: “A GA resolution is non binding.”

So if the Olympic truce process is not very good at securing a temporary world peace, may or may not be calling for a complete global ceasefire while the Games are ongoing, is, apparently, non-binding on those who back it, and if the current Korean détente would probably have happened without it anyway – though not without the Games being staged on the peninsula – it rather begs the question what is it good for?

Well, it probably helps the IOC stay in touch with what the great powers are really thinking, which is not a minor thing when you consider how close they came to killing the Movement off a generation or so ago in the boycott era, never mind sport’s many current governance issues…

It gives IOC President Thomas Bach cause to go and rub shoulders with said great powers’ representatives in New York on a regular basis, probably helping to consolidate the idea that the IOC leadership is the rightful representative on such lofty plains of the entire sport sector.

And I would think it helps to ensure that the IOC is primed to make the necessary practical and protocol arrangements when opportunities such as the one presented by Kim Jong-un’s late U-turn materialize.

Given the way things panned out, Bach had every justification for highlighting the Korean thaw in his short speech at the Pyeongchang 2018 Closing Ceremony.

But, since he paid homage to the Olympic truce, I do wish he had thought to mention the places in the world where there has been no cessation of hostilities, however brief.

I doubt there is a functioning TV-set left in eastern Ghouta.

But if there was, it would have come as news to those desperate people that the Olympic, or any other, truce had been respected.

By David Owen

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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