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.

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