Olympic Truce Just as Wise Now as 3,000 Years Ago
Almost 3,000 years ago, Greek King Ifitos of Elis visited the antiquity’s leading think tank, the oracle at Delphi, and asked the arts- and music-loving Apollo how to stop the brutal carnage among the city-states of the Greek peninsula. The oracle pointed him toward Olympia and the organization of a quadrennial athletic competition, as it would help break cycles of ignorance and hate.
King Ifitos sent messengers wearing crowns of olive branches throughout the region to announce the plan. Two returned swiftly with good news. King Lycourgos of Sparta and King Cleosthenes of Pisa accepted his invitation.
They were grieving over their war-torn population’s agony but were too proud to make the first steps to peace. With the window of opportunity open, however, they agreed to a cessation of hostilities seven days before, during and seven days after the first Olympic Games.
They called the agreement Ekecheiria, literally translated as “holding hands,” but eventually adopted as “Olympic Truce.”
Ifitos thus became the president of the ancient IOC and made sure that weapons were laid down and travelers to and from Olympia were not terrorized when passing through dangerous regions.
The truce remained an integral part of the ancient Olympic Games throughout 1,200 years with only a few violations.
On Monday, the General Assembly of the United Nations resolved to adopt a resolution titled, “Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal.”
The resolution, submitted by Greece and co-sponsored by 190 nations, endorsed the observance of the Olympic Truce for the 17-day 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Greece and Turkey already have suspended military exercises that could be threatening to each other -- their truce to last until after the Games.
The U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, said in one of his speeches:
”... Olympic ideals are also United Nations ideals: tolerance, equality, fair play and, most of all, peace. Together, the Olympics and the United Nations can be a winning team.
“But the contest will not be won easily. War, intolerance and deprivation continue to stalk the Earth .... I join the United Nations General Assembly in urging all those at war to observe the Olympic Truce. This may sound unrealistic. But as any athlete will tell you, nothing happens without a dream....”
The IOC and Olympic host countries have been submitting resolutions to the General Assembly of the United Nations every two years since 1993. They repeat the belief that observation of the Olympic Truce would assist building a peaceful and better world.
Yet, though it is always nearly unanimously endorsed, only a few nations have practiced it. One example was set by South and North Korea marching in the opening ceremony together at the Sydney Olympics under one flag.
Athens, however, has welcomed becoming the permanent home of the International Olympic Truce Center, the IOC international foundation whose goal is to promote the Olympic Truce.
Stavros Lambrinidis of the Greek Foreign Affairs Ministry heads the center, which, among other responsibilities, sponsors conferences and round-table discussions on the world’s realities.
Should truce negotiations occur between governments, the center is ready to mediate. But Lambrinidis is careful not to build expectations.
“The IOC is an apolitical sports organization,” he said. “It is not the United Nations.
“We do not claim to be able to bring peace to the world where international political organizations, major governments or even religious leaders have failed. The Olympic Truce provides a window of opportunity for solving conflicts perhaps best when both sides realize that conflict has spiraled out of control, but no side is willing to come out first to the negotiation table.”
Nine months before the Olympic Games, signs show that the Olympic movement is on the mend.
Sure, there is another steroid issue that stems from the belief that Olympic medals are faucets for cash. But as I look back at nearly a lifetime of Olympic experience, I can only compare the Olympic movement to a giant sweeper that swallows everything and rolls forward because its wheels are made of basic goodness.
Athens made a commitment to the IOC to empower the meaning of the Olympic Truce and seek the cessation of warfare during the Olympic Games.
If only for two weeks, the possibility for world peace exists.
Olga Connolly is a five-time Olympian who won a gold medal in the discus in 1956.