Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Raising the Olympic Flag?

The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries. - Olympic Charter, Ch. 1

Few who watched or participated in the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London are aware of the nationalism- leveling phrase meant to guide the Olympic Movement. One reason: the Olympic medal ceremony continues to feature national flags and national anthems, enabling national media to report on national medal counts, often using press releases issued by national Olympic committees.

Sometimes Olympic ideals come in second to Olympic practices.

How might idealists—perhaps even members of the International Olympic Committee—square practices with rhetoric? The simplest way is to de-nationalize the medal ceremony: Raise the Olympic flag and sound an Olympic anthem when awarding winners. Although featuring national flags and anthems is a tradition currently mandated by IOC Protocol, amending the practice would represent a daring but sensible action by the IOC to promote world peace through sport, the Olympics’ primary purpose.

The Olympic flag, representing the continents on which humanity resides and not the nation-states artificially created upon them, has become one of the most recognized positive symbols on the planet. Much of the human community identifies it as a symbol of a force for world peace.

An obvious question: Should the ceremony following an Olympic event mirror the inclusive closing ceremony, in which all competitors fall in behind one Olympic flag? In each, athletes arrive separated by politics and culture then become unified in their common struggle for excellence and the joy found in effort.

Most Olympic athletes compete for years with the dream of participating in a ceremony exalting their nation. At three Winter Olympic Games I was one. But raising the Olympic flag takes nothing away from the winner, except an opportunity to advance a political affiliation. And quickly, a new generation of aspiring Olympians would grow to associate Olympic victory with human, not national, achievement.

No other aspect of the ceremony need be altered: Gold medals would still be awarded; national uniforms would still be worn; political affiliations need not be renounced. A de-nationalized ceremony would simply recognize the accomplishment of the winner—and all competitors—as victory for humankind, giving everyone cause to say: “That is one of our own.”

Precedents exist.

At the 1980 Games in Moscow the IOC transcended the un-Olympic efforts of several nations by allowing their athletes to participate—and triumph—under the Olympic flag and hymn during the U.S.-led boycott of the Games. This and other examples stand for the idea that athletes compete in the Olympics representing the human family first and as political subjects only secondarily.

Is making such a dramatic shift in symbolism—in thought—worth the effort?

It promises not to be easy. In 2008 the Chinese Government allocated billions to its sports machine, charged with ensuring that the Chinese national flag and anthem dominated the Olympic podium in Beijing. China’s commitment to promoting its politics through its athletes differs only in magnitude and transparency from that of other nations, including the United States, where corporations take the place of government, no less representing a particular political and economic ideology.

Past IOC President Avery Brundage once wrote: “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 lost all purpose.” The Chinese government’s largess is a call to square Olympic practices with Olympic ideals.

Amending the medal ceremony will not guarantee social peace. But the winning effort in any Olympic event almost always begins with one strong step in the right direction.