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Five times the Olympics has fulfilled its ‘peace and dignity’ potential

By Pieta Woolley

Among the progressive left, Olympics-bashing is almost a sport in itself. The argument goes that the International Olympics Committee (IOC) functions as an economy-destroying, social justice-crushing corporate franchise — one that fans the flames of narcissistic nationalism. And Rio de Janeiro’s record is certainly not helping alter that image.

That said, during the games, themselves, many folks set aside their critique to enjoy a couple of weeks of televised elite sport — and the stories of the individual athletes.

But what about the promise of the Olympics, as set out in the Olympic Charter? The second fundamental principal 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.”

In the spirit of setting aside critiques during the games, here are five times the Olympics has actually fulfilled its peace and dignity potential — more or less.

1. 2014 Sochi Olympics: international LGBTQ rights

In 2013, Russia introduced legislation that banned teaching children about “non-traditional relationships.” A judge even banned the Olympics’ Pride House, which serves the seven percent of Olympians who identify as LGBTQ. Because of the outrage that the acts caused, the Olympics responded by ensuring that bidders for the 2022 Games understood that anti-discrimination is a key component in selecting the next host. That’s thanks in part to Tim Stevenson, former United Church of Canada Moderator Gary Paterson’s partner and Vancouver city councilor, who has lobbied the IOC on LGBTQ rights.

2. 1936 Berlin Olympics: pushing back against Nazism — on their turf

Hitler envisioned the triumph of the “Aryan race” at the Olympics — one that would prove his right to rule. But American track and field star Jesse Owens, the grandson of a slave, went on to win four gold medals. American Joe Louis’s 124-second knockout of German Max Schmeling, too, helped to undermine Hitler’s vision and propaganda efforts. Still, the Games’ victories did not avoid the spread of Nazism or WWII.

3. 2008 Beijing: China finds its voice

This was not the positive impact lobbyists were looking for, according to Titus Chen’s 2015 book, International Engagement in China’s Human Rights. The international “Genocide Olympics” naming and shaming campaign that preceded the 2008 Olympics hoped to impact human rights in China and “Free Tibet.” Instead, it triggered some law-changes in China, but Chen points out, “this temporary change of attitude was soon replaced by a growing concern over how to counter Western moral campaigns by better presenting China’s views of human rights and ways to protect them.” Instead, the campaign led to China’s increased focus on defending and presenting itself in political discourse. Chen, however, notes that human rights are improving in China — slowly. 

4. 2010 Vancouver: rapid transit got built

Ask any Vancouverite what the impact of the Winter Olympics was, and you’ll get a different answer. More social housing? More marginalization of the poor? Greater housing unaffordability? A boost to tourism? In an article just before the Sochi Games, Globe and Mail reporter James Keller found that the $7.7 billion games resulted in one thing that everyone can agree on: the gridlocked-city’s need for a North-South subway was finally fulfilled with the $2.1 billion Canada Line (It carries 122,000 people per day — or five percent of the region’s residents). Furthermore, Greater Vancouver finally received the $600 million Sea-to-Sky Highway improvement — a stretch of road that used to be a death-trap for both tourists and commuters. In other words, governments — triggered by the games — actually spent the money and got er’ done.

5. The Olympics promotes local athleticism, which leads to social peace

This is the argument in a 2012 column in the journal, Psychology International. The authors note that the Olympic Truce failed to stall the siege of Aleppo in 2012 and has not reduced other conflicts, either. But generally speaking, childrens’ sport programs run by the United Nations in regions recovering from war promote resilience, self-esteem and conflict-resolution skills.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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