The Olympic Truce: an ancient formula with relevance in today’s troubled, globalized world

The Olympic Truce has recently been revived as an optimistic addition to the world sporting spectacle that convenes every fourth summer. It also underscores the Olympics’ fundamentally political, not just athletic, nature. Yet as an Athenian audience was reminded on Monday evening, the notion of a truce is a lot more complicated, and difficult, than the promoters of a simple worldwide ceasefire during the Games might wish – but, in its various forms, more crucial than ever as a stepping stone to a more peaceable world. Frederik W. De Klerk, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for Peace with Nelson Mandela, was the honored guest of the National Research Foundation (EIE) on Monday evening. As a former South African president who was widely credited with defying 1970s-era predictions of a bloodbath in his country, he spoke with verve and passion on «Continuing the Concept of the Olympic Truce in a Globalizing World.» EIE, as its Paschalis Kitromilidis remarked, was an appropriate place for discussing such notions, not just for its scientific endeavors but as it happens to front the marathon race course just a kilometer or so from the Panathenaic Stadium finish. Useful, in context Noting his frequent forays in Greece (his wife is an Athenian), extolling its ancient treasures and lamenting the fact that we have no Delphic oracle to dispense advice, de Klerk posed a suitably dramatic question – «Is warfare our nature? Is conflict our destiny?» And he set the melancholic facts of the 20th century (60 million people killed in wars) in movingly human terms: «Each was a mother’s child» with a «unique perception of the universe,» yet was denied the chance to realize it. De Klerk emphasized that truces can work, but only if the warring parties use the time to actively negotiate an honorable solution, not simply to retool and rearm. Thus a «world truce» during the August 2004 Games is hardly likely to stop all bloodshed in Iraq, or Palestine, or Sudan, but might give the parties involved the chance to stop, think, talk and perhaps even examine their own motives. Dispelling notions of truces as flights of fancy (and the former president is few people’s idea of a misty-eyed idealist), he recounted some dramatic changes in the 20th century as examples of prevailing one-time illusions that were «blown away forever» by changing human behavior. In 1900, war was still considered a positive political reality while Europeans thought of themselves as axiomatically superior to all other peoples; in 1900, the world had just 13 liberal democracies, but by 1990 it counted 60. For truces to have a genuine role, they require, in his view, three fundamental preconditions for peace. The first is the elimination of poverty through development. Eleven of the poorest 30 countries have seen recent civil conflict, whereas none of the richest 20 had suffered from it, a fact he finds too compelling to dismiss. To him, it is in the developed world’s profound interest to «win a global war against poverty,» to confront distant conflicts and other scourges like AIDS in Africa, and to «bring hope to the hearts of one-third of the population of the world.» The second precondition is the spread of democracy, not just through elections but in building a human rights culture, legitimizing the media’s role, building a mindset that peace is better than war, offering a mechanism to throw bad leaders out, and providing the basis for peaceful development. No two genuine democracies have ever gone to war against each other – a common refrain he also cited as «an undoubted link» between economic development, the rule of law, and peace. His third precondition is better conflict management of ethnically diverse societies. From a world in which country A fought country B, most conflicts now are between peoples, often within countries, whether Basques against the Spaniards or the Hutus against Tutsis in Rwanda or sectarian factions in Northern Ireland. As such, «we have to find a way, a recipe» in multicultural societies to make minorities feel accepted and multiple identities of everyone respected. Thus Greeks can only be good Europeans if their «Greekness» is also accepted and celebrated. The challenge of managing tensions within countries could have given him plenty of opportunity to crow about successes in South Africa, so it was refreshing that he shied away from that, other than to say he was «proud (for SA) to be a beacon of hope» and one that could provide lessons for others. Thus, these requirements – development, democratization, and management of diversity – must be spread widely if this globalizing world is to produce less conflict. Only then can sufficient levels of stability be found to promote democratic institutions, human rights, and mechanisms for resolving conflict on the basis of mutual respect. An old concept His two predecessors on the podium were also firmly international figures in the science and art of conflict resolution, and who set a fact-filled academic pace to the evening. First, Angelos Haniotis, scholar of antiquity and vice rector of Germany’s renowned University of Heidelberg, described the ancient Games and their practices in his talk, «Did the Ancient Games Contribute to Peace?» While cautioning against extrapolating too freely from antiquity, his answer was: not very much, or at least not in ways we might think. He regaled the audience with evidence of military associations at Olympia: The great Temple of Zeus itself was a military monument, with a shield offered by Sparta after a victory and with pediments commemorating the warring Lapiths and Centaurs, while weapons were frequently donated – even more than at other such religious sites. Olympia was no less than a «monument to violence,» with a «spirit of distinction» reigning – between men and (banned) women, between free men and slaves, and between Greeks and foreigners. Why, then, the truce? Its value, he believes, lay mainly as an interruption of war only, which did not negate the reality of war but only stopped it temporarily so that all could celebrate the Games. As such, there were three reasons for the ancient truce’s strong influence on history: one, that it allowed the Games to be respected and continue regularly for centuries; second, it was our earliest form of international law, an admirable aspect of civilization and one that contained a moral element; and third, that it helped identify the Greek world and gave the Games a pan-Hellenic identity. Modern notions He was followed by University of Athens professor and frequent UN negotiator Emmanuel Roukounas, on the notion of truce in modern international law, and the never-ending search for negotiated solutions to today’s seemingly intractable conflicts. He distinguished between the ancient terms ekecheiria («holding of hands,» the term for truce we prefer now) and anakohi, which was the once-preferred usage and referred to «spears pointing upward.» And unlike the notions of «armistice,» which according to the 1907 Hague Conventions is an accord with a specific time limit and requires a written agreement, or formal treaties which imply permanence and legitimacy, a «truce» is more flexible and informal. He left no doubt about the increasingly complicated nature of warfare, through the growth of civil wars (or, according to the 1977 Geneva Protocol, «armed conflict of a non-international character»), insurgents that believe they act under divine will, the question of demilitarized zones, even the privatization of war itself. War, and thus the search for peace, are complicated and getting more so. But as de Klerk forcibly reminded his audience, burying our heads in the sand is no way to go about diminishing the former and promoting the latter. And the Games are a good opportunity to unbury our heads.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.