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An event born of strife: War and the Olympics

The Olympic Games have always straddled the awkward nexus between war and peace. While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is ostensibly (and avowedly) a purely sports organization with no political or even commercial aims, the Olympics have always managed to attract more than their share of political attention and occasional violence, and have frequently been overshadowed by wars, invasions and other conflicts. And the Games have been an occasional, and tempting, testing ground for low-level diplomatic initiatives, like getting the two Koreas to march at the opening ceremonies behind a single flag, as happened at Sydney in 2000, which suggests that the guardians of the flame are also very much alive to the world of public diplomacy. How might the war in Iraq affect the Athens Olympics? According to Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, the government’s overseer of Games preparations, the effect will be nil; «it is 18 months away from the start of the 2004 Games, so there is no relation between the two issues,» he was quoted on Monday as saying. That may be true in a direct sense, if the war, as most expect, is over and done with long before then. And certainly digging and building and overlaying in the Greek capital will continue apace no matter what happens in the Middle East in the coming weeks. Still, wars don’t happen in a vacuum; they tend to have a domino effect and this one cannot but affect thinking and preparing for 2004, especially in the realm of security. Security is already a huge priority, and delay in finding a contractor to do the training and technical work was the reason for IOC President Jacques Rogge’s dressing-down of the Athens effort a few weeks ago. All concerned will now be taking an aggressively pro-active stance on protecting the Games from outside interference. And the boycott question is a wild card; will any states elect to stay away from Athens in protest? By August 2004, this war will have lost its immediacy, so that may not be a problem unless unforeseen circumstances crop up or the conflict widens. Apart from warding off the negative, the Olympics aim to spread a positive message of good will. The Athens Games could also play an important role in soothing frayed nerves and getting the post 9/11, post-Iraqi war world back to a semblance of normality. Two weeks ago, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers was in Athens plugging sports programs as tools of humanitarian aid, especially for refugees, saying the Olympics «have the unique power to bypass the black moments of the world and bring people closer together.» Greece and the sporting world may get this opportunity sooner than they expected, as the country braces for an onslaught of humanity escaping a war zone. Old precedents The strenuous efforts to prepare for every contingency have echoes of ancient times. The original Olympics carried on virtually uninterrupted for well over a thousand years despite the instability and turmoil of the ancient Greek world. Even the Peloponnesian Wars of 431-404 BC, which raged nearby, weren’t able to shut them down, though they nearly did so in 420 BC. This amazing continuity was possible, at least in part, because they were built upon a generally accepted political agreement on the cessation of hostilities beforehand. Even before the Games officially got under way in 776 BC, at least according to legend, three leaders – Iphetus, king of Elis, Cleosthenes, tyrant of Pisa, and Lycurgus, Spartan lawgiver – signed an agreement providing for the non-inviolability or «permanent neutrality» of the Olympic site, which was even sanctified by the oracle at Delphi. It didn’t hurt that the site itself, which wasn’t particularly strategically valuable, was dedicated to the god of gods, Zeus himself, and was a site of religious pilgrimage. Thus was founded the Olympic Truce, or Ekecheiria, which allowed ancient peoples to gather unhindered for the competitions in Ancient Olympia every fourth summer. In ancient times, writers like Pausanius did not write much about the Truce, which has been a little puzzling for modern classical researchers, partly as the Truce seems to have been such a central component of the Games’ long-term success. Perhaps this was because it was not a blanket prohibition on all wars during the Games and the months before and after; it merely decreed a cessation of conflicts whose continuance would threaten the Games or harm those traveling to them. But the Olympics did actually play a role in several major battles. The Spartan contingent martyred at Thermopylae was so tiny because the bulk of the army was laid up due to the Olympics. Victim of wars In its modern rendition, the Olympic movement has tended to be more passive regarding issues of war and peace, and the Games themselves a frequent target for the disgruntled. Only recently, and partly on Greek initiative, has it picked up on the Truce idea with any vigor. The Games have often been held either during wars or in the shadow of them. Three times in the past century, they have been pre-empted by world war. The 1916 Berlin Olympiad, just 20 years after the Games were revived, was canceled due to World War I, pushing back Berlin’s chance to host the Games for two decades. The 1940 Tokyo Olympiad was still on even after Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, as an adamantly non-political IOC had trouble being convinced that it should cancel or move them; only the outbreak of war itself did them in. (Even as late as 1939, the IOC voted to give Germany the 1940 Winter Games.) And the 1944 Games, designated for Rome, were similarly canceled due to the war. Other Games have been held under the shadow of conflict, or else in the poisoned aftermath of one. The Stockholm Games of 1912 were held in the tense years before of World War I and during the Balkan Wars. Berlin 1936, the «Nazi Olympics,» had its own political and war implications. Both postwar Games, Antwerp in 1920 and London in 1948, refused admission to German athletes and officials. Much later, the Sarajevo Winter Games of 1984 took on a tragic symbolism; the Lillehammar Games 10 years after that included a moment of silence for the war raging in Bosnia’s capital. Other more regionalized conflicts have also affected proceedings. The 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and the concurrent Suez war both elicited boycotts of the Melbourne Games by several countries, even though Australia had nothing to do with either war. At Munich, 16 years later, terrorism was visited upon the Olympics site itself for the first and (so far) only time. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was occasion for the last war-generated boycott, led by the US, of the 1980 Moscow Games. The Olympic movement treads a narrow path: aiming to spread peaceable ideals of friendly competition, believing that sport can be a healing process, and understanding that the Games’ public symbolism can be used to make political statements. And yet, it shies away from posturing, much less brandishing any forcible means of stopping conflict. The United Nations and European Union may have been found wanting as peacemakers, but that doesn’t mean the IOC is willing, much less able, to step into the breach. The best it, or the Games organizers, can hope to do is to ensure that a safe environment is created for the events – and talk up the Olympic ideals themselves.