The competing nations flags enter the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Closing Ceremony. (Getty Images)
For the last 17 days, a worldwide television audience has been exposed to the thrilling feats, emotive stories and smiling faces of young people from 80+ nations, celebrating their trials and triumphs in the Sochi Olympic Winter Games.
While the media narrative in the run up to the Games provided an onslaught of negative stories on Vladimir Putin’s megalomaniacal ambitions, the excessive costs of Sochi 2014, the dangers of event driven terrorism, the Russian repression of freedom of speech and the homophobia of the dictatorial host society, almost no ink or digital space has been given to the role of this festival as a model of global harmony in our war torn, divided and contentious world.
The absence of any positive assessment begs a few questions: What is the value to humanity of an event that draws the world together in a celebration of friendship and peace through sport, that empowers basically everyone to engage in a unique shared experience of the things we have in common? Is it purely symbolic? Is it only a fleeting glimpse of the hope we all hold that our world can be a better place? Or is it something more? Is it part of the inexorable march of social evolution that is leading us to a more promising, unified and peaceful future? Are the Olympic Games something more than sport?
Their founder certainly believed they were. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French education reformer who resurrected the Olympic Games after a 1500 year absence, clearly believed the worldwide movement he launched would ultimately help bring us all closer together. Writing in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine in 1896 about the first modern Olympics in Athens, he said, “We shall not have peace until the prejudices that now separate the different races are outlived. To attain peace, what better means is there than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility?”
Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin (sitting, L) poses with members of the first IOC in Athens in 1896. (Getty Images)
How often do we get to witness what we’ve just seen—the common expression of joy on the faces of young people from Russia, France, Japan, Norway, China, Turkey, Greece, Argentina, Iran, Israel and the U.S.—to name only a tenth of the participating nations. We watch them laugh, cry, joke, and hug in the full diversity of their cultural costumes. We hear them express their gratitude in their own way for the opportunity to prove that they were capable of competing with the very best in the world. On that Olympic stage, whether their dreams were fulfilled or thwarted, they have embodied the soul of humanity for everyone watching. Regardless of their country of origin, they have demonstrated that noble aspirations beat in every human heart, that the notions of sacrifice for a goal, dedication, perseverance, and the pursuit of excellence are universal values that bind us at the core of our being.
In Coubertin’s idealistic vision, the Olympic Games were designed to serve as “… a quadrennial festival of universal youth, the springtime of mankind.” Through his plan for the Games, he intended to give “… each generation (its chance) to celebrate its coming of age, its joie de vivre, its faith in the future, its ambitions, and its desire to excel.” Those who watched the global broadcasts of Sochi 2014 can attest to the fact that this generation lived up to Coubertin’s hopes.
Which leads back to the essential question about whether this festival of universal youth serves the greater good—or has any value to our world beyond its appeal as the pinnacle of sports. One of Coubertin’s
successors as president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, once summed up the work of the Olympic Movement this way: "We pursue one ideal, that of bringing people together in peace, irrespective of race, religion and political convictions, for the benefit of mankind."
Rather remarkable that in that statement there is no reference to sport—or to the location where the Olympic Movement decides to bring people together. If the Games are of value to our world beyond the heroic feats they always produce, that value derives from the way they expose us to one another—the way they break down the walls that divide us, the way they help us outlive our prejudices. Sometimes that requires putting the Games on the far side of the walls that do divide us in the political realm.
A statue of Coubertin watches over Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. (Getty Images)
As China and now Russia can testify, there is a high price to pay for hosting the Games when your intrinsic national values come into conflict with the liberating and egalitarian philosophy that Coubertin infused into the Games. The Olympics travel to every host country with an enormous caravan of broadcasters and journalists in tow. They shine the largest global media spotlight on the Games—and on their hosts—and that spotlight is unrelenting.
Despite the self-serving interests fulfilled through their two weeks in the global spotlight, the Russians opened themselves to a barrage of well-deserved criticism, external criticism that creates internal pressure for political and social change. Time will tell if that pressure leads to meaningful advances in human rights—or even smaller measures of progress. In the meantime, we might dare to hope it will. We might dare to believe along with Coubertin that the Olympic Games deliver something of far greater value than sport to our world. They deliver a festival of universal youth capable of inspiring almost anyone with the hope that we can build a better, more peaceful world together.
George Hirthler is an Atlanta writer working on a historical novel on the life of Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
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