VOX POPULI: Sport has a mission for peace – An appeal on the occasion of the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024

/This is an essay by Professor Helmut Digel of Germany, a handball player in his youth, but well known as the President of the DLV, the German track & field federation, from 1993-2001 and was a member of the IAAF (now World Athletics) Council from 1995 to 2015. As a professor of sport sociology, he taught at universities in Frankfurt, Tubingen and Darmstadt between 1978 and 2010. He now edits the online magazine Sport Nach Gedacht, from which he offers this article. His writing offers a sobering perspective, and  his views are, of course, his alone./

As each new year dawns, it has long been customary to indulge in rhetorical debate about the weighty concept of ‘peace’. In the many annual speeches by politicians, the peace metaphor is an imperative to suit their populist interests. On television the issue of peace has its seasonal climax. News and entertainment programmes are shaped by it, musical tunes repeat year after year with peace as their refrain, and feature films are shown again and again in which a peaceful “happy ending” is celebrated.

The system of sport, which is very important for Western societies, is understandably no exception. In their speeches at the turn of the year, sports leaders politicians devote their attention to the issue of peace, fair play and the observance of human rights.

The turn of the year 2023/24 had a heightened significance compared to the change of previous years and presented a very special challenge. For more than two years, Russia’s terrorist war of aggression against Ukraine has had a lasting impact on the world’s cultural, economic and socio-political development. War results in the deaths of countless innocent people every day. In this war alone, 500,000 soldiers have already been killed. Every dead civilian and every injured combatant is one too many, and we all have to mourn the senseless deaths of countless Ukrainian and Russian fathers, mothers, sons and daughters.

A few weeks before the turn of the year, there was also the barbaric terrorist attack by Hamas against innocent Jewish citizens, which has triggered an equally barbaric war between Israel and Hamas and Hezbollah and resulted in almost endless suffering for many Israeli families. But it is also necessary to think of the many innocent Palestinians whose existence has been repeatedly threatened for several years by an Israeli state that even many self-critical Israeli citizens and internationally recognized Jewish political experts, philosophers and sociologists deny the status of a “democracy.”

“Artists admonish us” (Art posters from the international art park “798″ in Beijing)

If we consider that, in addition to Ukraine, Israel and the Gaza Strip, there are still currently more than 20 other armed conflicts with countless innocent victims. It must probably be stated by all of us that we are currently living in an extremely peaceless time which we could hardly have expected at the dawn of the twenty-first century. At the same time, we must recognise that viable and promising initiatives for a peaceful world and for resolving the many military conflicts around the globe are nowhere to be seen.

The very institutions of our society that tried to outdo each other in their peace during the Christmas season are characterized by a total failure in this regard. This applies to political institutions as well as to ecclesiastical and other religious ones, but also to all other relevant social institutions – including sport. No serious relevant peace efforts can be discerned. In politics, the concept of ‘diplomacy’ and wise diplomatic action seems to have become alien.

In Germany, a party that once defined itself as a “peace party” is locked with other political parties in a competition on the question of how many and with which weapons one should still support the war in Ukraine, even though everyone knows that weapons always result in the death of innocent people, that further arms deliveries will only prolong the duration of the war and that only the arms industry will be the winner – it can look forward to the increase in sales that it owes to its successful war lobbying work. Germany’s foreign policy supports the constant expansion of NATO’s sphere of influence and employs rhetorical threatening gestures that are anything but peacekeeping. And the Federal President and the Federal Government believe that their policies are resolutely countering the dangerously growing anti-Semitism in German society by not allowing a “but” in their support for the State of Israel. But because this support does not distinguish between the State of Israel and its Jewish citizens, who deserve our support, anti-Semitic tendencies in our society are reinforced rather than combated, and equal support for Jews and Muslims in a democratic state of Israel is prevented rather than promoted.

With regard to religions, one must also speak of a total failure. For two years now, the World Council of Churches of the Protestant Church has been waiting in vain for a peace policy initiative that speaks with one voice vis-à-vis international politics. Nor is there any sign of an effort on the part of international business associations to take economic action to end the conflicts. The efforts of the Catholic Church to take a peace measure against the war – together with the Orthodox Churches of the East – have not progressed beyond fruitless initiatives. At best, one can appreciate the open and clear address of Pope Francis, who in his Christmas address clearly expressed the deadly connection between weapons and war. His speech culminated in the statement that peace has never been established with the use of weapons, that guns kill, and that without guns there would be no wars. A “political ban on weapons,” which is now more urgent than ever, has never been more clearly stated.

The various institutional manifestations of Islam that can be found in the world have also failed in every way in relation to the current wars. From all other representatives of the religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and other religious communities, no significant peace initiatives can be observed either. Rather, we must speak of a total failure of the religious leaders. The same applies to the globally active economic institutions and organizations as well as to the world organizations of trade unions.

The IOC is the only international organization that adheres to its self-imposed peace mission and, in cooperation with the United Nations, is at least striving for a ‘temporary peace’ through the staging of its Olympic Games. However, its stakeholders, i.e. the international sports federations and the more than 200 National Olympic Committees, have hardly made any independent peace efforts. In fact, the opposite is often the case.

Particularly consequential is the fact that pacifism and large parts of the Christian canon of values have been overridden by the total failure of all relevant institutions. People who feel they belong to pacifism are discredited. Their peace initiatives are ridiculed in mass communication and misused as cabaret topics. Anyone who invokes the Ten Commandments as a believing Christian in connection with the war in Ukraine or in the armed conflict between Palestine and Israel is contradicted even by his own Christian institutions. In my view, the assumption that the validity of the Ten Commandments may be suspended during a war is unacceptable in every respect. There is certainly no evidence for this in the theological foundations of Christianity.

In view of this situation, it is more important than ever to remember, not least here in Germany, that there have been times when the blue dove of peace has been an almost everyday symbol of our society, that many houses in German and European villages and cities have been draped with peace flags, and that it has been no shame in the most diverse areas of our society’s life when people have been involved in peace initiatives.

This was and is especially true of the system of sport which, with its cultural significance and its concept of values, is committed to the “principle of association” [note 1] in a very special way. For modern sport, “competition” and “cooperation” are constitutional, and both must be held together by the principle of fair play. The imperative of “solidarity” is indispensable for the organisation of sporting competitions. That is why it was long overdue that the Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” was supplemented by a “Communiter” (“Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together”). However, IOC President Thomas Bach, who pushed through this continuation of modern Olympism on the occasion of the extremely problematic and in many ways endangered Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022, did not receive any applause for it. Neither international politics nor large parts of sports policy recognized or heeded the significance of this step.

Initiatives of sport for the sake of peace in our world, as were still widespread in Germany and Europe in the second half of the last century – demonstrations against the torture measures in Argentina on the occasion of the Football World Cup, sporting peace marches, organizational efforts under the motto “Athletes for Peace” – have now receded into the distant past. An effort on my part to launch a sporting peace initiative on the occasion of the terrible war in Ukraine was welcomed by a Protestant regional bishop, who also holds the chairmanship of the World Council of Churches of the Evangelical Church, and he had promised to present this concern to the World Council of Churches as well. However, there has been no response from him to date. Sporting peace marches would be more urgent today than ever, and it would probably be one of the most noble tasks of all responsible sports politicians of the Federal Government and the German Bundestag to make clear demands in favor of diplomatic peace efforts on the occasion of the devastating wars in Ukraine and Israel/Gaza. Unfortunately, the opposite can be observed.

The institutions of German sport are not aware of their autonomous role in relation to the peace mission and have submissively subordinated themselves to Berlin’s wrong political decisions. On the other hand, there is a ridiculous “armband culture” in rainbow colors, led by a Federal Minister of the Interior and Home Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany, with whom violations of human rights are hypocritically dealt with. What goes unnoticed is that we are guilty of a division of human rights, which must be indivisible, not only from the point of view of the United Nations, but above all from an ethical, moral and Christian point of view.

When Ukrainian athletes refuse to shake hands with their Russian opponents at award ceremonies, this gesture and deliberate decision is applauded by the German mass media, while when Muslim athletes do the same to their Jewish opponents, these actions are denounced as a violation of the unwritten rules of the principle of fair play in international sport (quite rightly so, in my opinion), and condemned. While the IOC, under the leadership of its IOC President Bach, advocates the participation of innocent Russian athletes as ‘neutral athletes’ under clearly defined conditions at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, German state policy, together with other European states, demanded the exclusion of all Russian and Belarusian athletes, without being supported by the vast majority of German sports organizations. including the athletes‘ representatives. However, I am not aware of any comparable demands for the exclusion of athletes from nations who are irresponsibly engaged in armed conflicts with other nations these days and thus continuously violate human rights.

Summer Olympics in 2024 could become a very special appeal for peace and represent a full memorial to peace. However, this would require all sports organisations to reflect on the values of the Olympic Charter, to respect the principle of the indivisibility of human rights, to actively oppose all forms of racism and discrimination, and to demonstrate and draw attention to their interest in a lasting peace with great unity. Peace congresses and peace marches and runs could be just as much a part of this as independent sporting events dedicated to the message of peace. Gestures of peace by individual athletes should also be welcome. Anyone who objects to the principle of solidarity should have to learn that they are thereby excluding themselves from the community of sport. Gestures of fraternization would be just as desirable as a committed accompaniment of all these measures through art, literature, science and music.

France’s Baron de Coubertin had a vision more than 100 years ago. In my opinion, this has by no means become obsolete. The desire for peace can be observed all over the world, and all those who have lost their loved ones in wars know what peace could have meant to them if it had been established at the right time.

All those responsible and involved in national and international sport are hereby called upon to take up the peace mission and the chance for peace before, during and after the Olympic Games in Paris 2024 and to help create and preserve the peace desired by many people all over the world.

[Note 1: “Association” refers to the result of a process in which two or more cognitive elements (in this case two ideas) are brought into a constitutive connection with each other.]

Comments are welcome here and or direct to Prof. Digel here.

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