Sunday, August 24, 2008

Loving One's Opponents?

The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

- Fundamental Principles of Olympism

There were greater and lesser examples of un-Olympic behavior at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

The expulsion of a Tae Kwon Do athlete for violently appealing his result by filing a roundhouse kick with a ringside judge needed no deliberation from the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Nor did the several cases of athletes who ran afoul of the Games' strict liability anti-doping code, whether their choices were premeditated or simply negligent. Expelling a Wrestler who flouted medal-ceremony etiquette was perhaps a closer call.

The IOC is resolute: There is no place at the Games for those who undermine Olympism, whether flagrantly or accidentally. When individuals inhibit the building of a peaceful society by desecrating human dignity the IOC deems them ineligible.

But just how far is the IOC willing to go to advance the Olympic Charter's lofty ideals? Is pacifism a fundamental Olympic principle?

In the past decade the IOC has mandated that "To be eligible for participation in the Olympic Games a competitor, coach, trainer, or other team official [must] respect the spirit of fair play and non-violence." [Olympic Charter, Rule 41]. Is this the same non-violence used by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., two world champions who epitomized Swifter, Higher, Braver in their courageous service to the harmonious development of humankind?

Those radical, rule-breaking Olympians in Life used weapons of the spirit and found that non-violent force could promote a peaceful society far better than violent force precisely because it preserves human dignity. They showed us that loving one's enemy is a crucial component of peace-making.

Olympism, it would seem, asks us to love our opponents in similar fashion, to realize our human connection in the pursuit of excellence whether we are heavyweight boxers or lightweight scullers.

Yet the IOC welcomes militarists at the Games--indeed, the suspect military readiness of relatively unfit French youth in late 19th Century motivated Pierre de Coubertin and others to revive the Olympics. And Olympians have gone on to kill and be killed in war after their Olympic service--also in the name of promoting a peaceful society, ironically. German Longjumper Luz Long died on the killing fields of World War II after famously cooperating with Jesse Owens on the playing fields of Olympiad XI. And U.S. Generals-to-be George Patton and Douglas MacArthur both participated in the Olympic arena before they slaughtered in the theater of war.

De Coubertin, the humanitarian who gave us the pacific principles of Olympism, personally introduced the sport of Modern Pentathalon to the 1912 Games, created specifically for the military man. Other military-oriented sports--Fencing, Shooting, Archery--are Olympic fixtures, as are the combat sports: Boxing, Wresting, Tae Kwon Do, Judo--and at least in 1956, Water Polo, where Hungarian and Soviet athletes bloodied the water in an epic war-by-other-means gold medal contest.

So where does one draw the line?

The boxing competition was canceled at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm: The activity was illegal under Swedish law. Some have called Equestrian, in which horses are subjugated for human sport and entertainment, the epitome of unfair play. And then there is American educator Alfie Kohn, who forcefully articulated the case against competition itself, which he viewed as a form of violence that ultimately inhibits real togetherness.

Perhaps the beauty of the Olympic concept is that militarists and pacifists can come together across philosophical, sometimes even military, lines to pursue a common goal: Human Excellence. In other words, it is not the sport itself that runs afoul of the Olympic ideals, but the spirit one employs in doing it that matters.

But what about Pankration, a core sport of the Ancient Olympics whose direct descendant is the increasingly popular--and undeniably universal--Ultimate Fighting Challenge? Might this no-holds-barred combat sport return to the Olympic program? What would be the grounds for objection? Is the physicality or aggression required of a sport the concern? Or is the root problem violating the spirit of respect for one's opponent, regardless of a sport's propensity for bruises or blood. Which really offends Olympism: Pankratiasts bloodying but respecting each other in competition? Or a Dream Team basketball player delivering a mean-spirited chest-blow to an Angolan opponent? The Ancient Greeks surely would have said the latter.

Clearly, some of the mores that guide the modern Olympic Movement are different than those that guided the Games of antiquity.

But as humanity emerges from the bloodiest Millenium in its history, and as the modern Olympic Movement increasingly reveals the power of sport to foster peaceful reconciliation between peoples and nations in conflict, perhaps it is time for the IOC to hold its participants more accountable--individually and organizationally--in behaving in accord with non-violence.

Would it be unreasonable for the IOC to suspend National Olympic Committees that are extensions of national governments that are supporting killing? Is it time to demand a real Olympic Truce, where the world's nation-states not only give Olympic participants safe passage, but actually cease their peace-breaking during the Games?

For those who wonder whether there will ever be sufficient political will to bring about such pacific change, they might take counsel from Gandhi, the great soul who helped make ideals real for compatriots in India and whose life bore this message: Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Truly, an Olympian feat.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Medalsome Counting?

The International Olympic Committee and the Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games shall not draw up any global ranking per country.

-Olympic Charter
, Rule 58

Human beings love to count.

Whether we are toddlers numbering toes or coaches working out split times, our propensity for counting is wired into our psyches. Yet a fundamental aspect of the Olympic Games is that there shall be no official counting of medals during the fortnight of competition.

Unofficially, of course, individuals and institutions that do not govern the Olympic Games are free to count away.

And count they do.

National media keep precise count of medals won in comparison with other nations. And to ensure the press gets it right, National Olympic Committees issue daily press releases, assisted by sports National Governing Bodies.

The Olympic Charter is quite clear: The Games are contests between athletes and not between countries. So why does the counting persist?

Hold latent nationalism accountable. At its most virulent it takes the form: "My country/way of living/socio-political system is superior to yours and the results of athletic competition confirm it." Of course, this line of thinking raises some obvious questions: Does one count all medals won? Only gold medals? What methodology works best? And for whom?

And, of course: Why would framers of the Olympic Movement bar institutions that govern the Games from doing what people seem to do naturally?

Avery Brundage, a U.S. national who helmed the IOC during the depths of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., once warned: “If the Games become contests between hired gladiators of various nations with the idea of building national prestige or proving that one system of government or other is better than another, they will lose all purpose.”

At the 1952 Games in Helsinki, the Soviet's Olympic debut included a housing complex with a large public scoreboard that tracked--created, actually--its medals competition with the U.S. Using a scoring system that had been publicized by the British in previous Games, with 7-5-4-3-2-1 points issued to the top six places, the upstart Soviets proudly informed the world that they outperformed the veteran U.S. team. U.S. commentators and collaborators, of course, preferred a 10-5-4-3-2-1 system, which would give their team the edge owing to more gold medals won.

The two governments continued to wage political battles through sport for the next 40 years, intensifying to the point where it became a zero-sum game: Total medals won by the U.S. in 1980 and the Soviets in 1984? Zero.

The counting conflicts continue today. U.S. media apparently favors totaling all medals won, weighing gold, silver, and bronze equally--a practice that would have been scoffed at during the ancient Olympic Games. Chinese media--and Chinese sports officials--prefer focusing on gold medals won. Predictably, nationalism-minded counters will choose whichever methodology results in their nation standing atop the imaginary podium in the unofficial medal competition.

But if the un-Olympic boycotts of the 1980's were the low point in the counting epidemic, there is some evidence of progress in 2008.

The United States Olympic Committee, under the leadership of former Olympic athlete Jim Scherr (Wrestling, 1988), announced in the lead-up to the Beijing Games that it would forgo the counting of medals, choosing instead to focus on the Olympic Spirit, presumably the part about the important thing being not winning but participating.

The cynic might say the USOC's de-nationalized approach is merely a strategem to offset the Chinese sports machine's large harvest of Olympic medals. But others--and I am one--take the USOC's re-orientation at face value, an indicator of the increasing universalism of the Olympic Movement.

What will the future hold? How long before the IOC creates a new rule that directs NOCs and NGBs to join OCOGs in forgoing medal counting? How soon before the IOC insists that Olympic broadcasters--the most powerful disseminators of the Olympic message--eliminate counting from their coverage as a condition of winning contracts? And how many Olympiads will pass before the IOC takes the ultimate step, amending its protocol to mandate an Olympic Flag-raising Victory Ceremony instead of the current nationalism-soaked version?

The countdown continues.

Friday, August 15, 2008

One Dream? One World!

You may not have heard of the World Service Authority. The WSA is the administrative arm of the World Government of World Citizens, established in the mid 20th century by Garry Davis and other Earthians committed to the politics of One World.

The work of the WSA: transcending the apartheid of the nation-state system, a relatively recent arrangement in human affairs in which rights and privileges are assigned based on the accident of one's birthplace, including the fundamental right to travel freely on Earth.

In the last half century the WSA has issued World Passports to tens of thousands of World Citizens, some refugees from war, others political outcasts, and a few--like myself--who place political allegiance to humanity ahead of the nation-state we reside in.

During the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 I took a cue from Garry Davis. Having traveled to Greece on a World Passport with the Olympic Charter in my heart--and the UN Declaration of Human Rights and U.S. and Greek Constitutions squarely on my side--I freely and voluntarily relinquished national citizenship at the U.S. Consulate in Athens, within site of the Olympic Stadium that hosted the rebirth of the Games in 1896.

Predictably, the U.S. Consul and I didn't see eye-to-eye in matters of statecraft. But we were able to talk heart-to-heart in matters of philosophy, one human being to another.

The Consul's ultimate refusal to issue a Certificate of Loss of Nationality did not represent defeat for world citizenship, nor would assent have represented triumph. Rather, as the Olympic Creed makes clear, the struggle is the main thing: Overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of excellence is the essence of Olympism, whether those obstacles are nagging physical injuries or deep-rooted social prejudices.

In ancient times Olympic champions were accorded something akin to citizenship of the entire Hellenic world. And the Olympic Truce, Ekecheria, permitted ancient Oympians to travel safely to and from Olympia every four years, even amidst warring city-states.

Why should the modern Olympian not employ the mind and will in service to similar political ideals just as he or she employs the body in pursuit of physical ones? Isn't an Olympian foremost an ambassador for humanity?

My journey toward world citizenship is as much a part of my Olympic struggle as the hours spent in grueling speedskating training: It is about the struggle to achieve excellence, not only in body, but in mind and will. It is about Faster, Higher, Braver. Daily, it is about facing back fear, doubt, and disbelief, both in myself and in others.

Leo Tolstoy, famed Russian writer and avowed pacifist, once asked the thorny question: "Patriotism or Peace?" The implication: Fierce love of one's nation-state inhibits peaceful relations on one's planet. Is Tolstoy right? That's for individuals to answer for themselves. Certainly I am among those Olympic athletes whose youthful will to succeed was at least partially nurtured by my political identity as a national citizen.

But the truth I've discovered in my Olympic journey is that One World is more than a dream: It is the goal. If a 9.5 second 100 meter sprint seemed a distant dream before Usain Bolt crossed the line in the Olympic final in Beijing, is living in a world without borders or boundaries really so far off? In 1988, would we have envisioned that in 2008 one could travel from Athens to Berlin without needing a national passport?

Creating change, whether in ourselves or the political or social systems that govern us, is a matter of will. It's that simple.

Pierre de Coubertin articulated the challenge a century ago: "Olympism as the holder and distributor of social peace, this is the final rung to climb."

It will certainly take Olympian will.

Read a recent blog by Garry Davis:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Spreading the Olympic Spirit

The Center for the Study of Sport in Society and the Olympism Project have launched a special campaign at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

The grassroots effort--lead by Olympians--aims to inspire, motivate, and educate athletes in the Olympic Village through posters with quotations and images chronicling the people, history and ideas of Olympism and the Olympic Spirit.

The campaign's goal is to ensure that Olympic values are not lost in the midst of Olympic competition.

The Olympic Charter is clear: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” - Fundamental Principles

Olympism takes on added relevance as the intersection of the Games and politics attracts global attention and awareness like few Games before. The Beijing Olympic Games are not only about the athletes and the spirit of international competition - One World, One Dream; they are also about bringing nations and cultures into dialog with one another in order to effect peaceful change in the world.

The Olympic Charter outlines the role of the IOC: “To cooperate with the competent public or private organizations and authorities in the endeavor to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace.”

Mindful of the IOC's mandate and the Olympic Spirit, Sport in Society and the Olympism Project are delivering a new poster to Olympic delegations on each day of competition.

The posters encourage athletes to succeed both on the playing field and off, simultaneously challenging them to think about what it means to be an Olympian today.

Today’s Olympic athletes find themselves in a unique and prestigious position as the eyes of the world are upon them for seventeen days. The Olympism poster campaign is already inspiring, motivating and challenging athletes to perform to the best of their ability, and to represent their respective countries--and humanity--with dignity and poise while amidst the flurry of political and social activism that inevitably attends the Games.

See a recent Boston Globe article: