The Olympic Truce is the programme of work led by the International Olympic Committee that takes inspiration from the ancient Greek tradition of Ekecheria, which was invoked during the ancient Olympic Games to allow safe passage of participants to Ancient Olympia for the purpose of competition.
The myth is that it was effective. The truth is likely to be that it didn’t always work, but it worked enough for the Ancient Olympic Games to take place and become historic events that later inspired Pierre de Coubertin to revive them in modern times, at a time when the value of internationalisation was only just taking hold.
The truth about the modern Olympic Truce may well resemble its ancient predecessor, but this doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. The failure of some regions of ancient Greece to adhere to the Truce, or for some people to fail in their respect for the initiative does not mean that it was or is either a failure or a myth. As well, the fact that the Olympic movement could do more to bring about a peaceful world does not mean that what it does presently is of no value or that it is ineffective.
By and large, the Olympic Games do take place relatively unfettered by conflict. As well, the range of organizations that are mobilised by the Olympic Truce programme will have an impact on people around the world, especially young people – the Olympic movement’s core audience and community. With all the critical commentaries surrounding the Olympic Games, it’s important to remember that a big part of who the IOC seeks to inspire is children and these sentiments of Truce are not lost on children or burdened by cynicism.
The fairest way to judge the effectiveness of the Olympic Truce is on whether the athletes can get to the Games and, in large part, they do. In this sense, the Truce is a success, but its existence may have no bearing on this reality. Without the UN calling for Truce to be upheld in partnership with the IOC, things may simply proceed as they do for other sports events; athletes turn up and compete reasonably unburdened by global politics.
Yet, we should also not underestimate the fragility of international sports events. It was not so long ago that countries boycotted the Games for political reasons and this remains an ever-present threat to the successful completion of the Olympic Games, as a place where all athletes are able to compete alongside one another, regardless of the political conflicts that occupy their territories.
Judged on this basis, it is fair to say that the principle of the Truce is upheld during the modern Olympic Games, when judged on the basis of the successful delivery of the Games. Expecting much more from the Truce is naive and the IOC is very clear on the limits of what it can do and what should be the role of governments to establish enduring conditions of peace.
The IOC limits the scope of their contribution to the successful completion of a peaceful Games where sport – the physical manifestation of cooperation – despite it being a series of competitions – is the salient evidence of its achievements.
It is sometimes said that the problem of Olympic Truce is, more accurately, a problem of modern, elite sports, which are constituted by antagonistic nationalism and elitism, but these have never really been problems that are owned by athletes. They are problems experienced by the spectators, the people who watch or listen, but who do not take part as competitors.
Yet, it is the competitors who we should ask to discover whether Truce is effective. Very few of us live the lives of elite athletes, who find themselves constantly in contact with fellow competitors from all over the world. Each time a competition begins at the Olympic Games, it is like the convening of a United Nations meeting, but where the prior agreement is to play together, to share the pursuit of excellence through competition.
It is also likely that sport, as a vehicle for peace, goes far deeper than just the creation of a sports event that runs smoothly. As Juneau Gary and Neal Rubin note in 2021, ‘participation in sporting activities has the potential to develop resilience and feelings of efficacy in terms of self-esteem building, skill building and problem solving capabilities’. Each of these are instrumental in fostering conditions of respectful and peaceful solutions to complex challenges facing the world, but the long term impact of these is not easy to evidence.
Of course, elite sport is always much more than this and the additional burdens of the sports media complex may often work to the frustration of the joyfulness of what we would hope the experience of sporting excellence to involve. Indeed, with the prominent discussions about the mental wellness of athletes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, we should certainly address the absence of joyfulness in the modern athlete’s life. Yet, life is so often also both of these things simultaneously, a joyful burden.
It is absolutely foolish to expect the Olympic Truce to establish a persistence of peace around the world. It may also prove unlikely that the Truce will achieve 16 days of peace across the world at each Olympic Games but, if it manages to secure the participation of all eligible athletes at the Games, then it will have done its job and we are all better off for that having happened.
Juneau Gary, PsyD, and Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP (2021) The Olympic Truce: Sport promoting peace, development and international cooperation, Psychology International https://www.apa.org/international/pi/2012/10/un-matters
Quotes from the International Olympic Committee
3. During the period, all armed conflicts, and any acts related to, inspired by or akin to such conflicts, shall cease, whatever the reason, cause or
means of perpetration thereof.
Done in Barcelona, 21 July 1992
“Sport alone cannot enforce or maintain peace. But it has a vital role to play in building a better and more peaceful world.”
Dr Jacques Rogge, IOC President, October 2007
1992: the IOC launched an Appeal for the observance of the Olympic Truce and negotiated with the United Nations to facilitate athletes of the former Republic of Yugoslavia to participate in the Games of the XXIII Olympiad in Barcelona.