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Calling a Truce: When Sports Can Make A Difference

Calling a Truce: When Sports Can Make A Difference

Sports are increasingly used as a tool of reconciliation, as their influence is growing throughout the world. But when it comes to concrete diplomatic issues, one may legitimately ask what sports can really offer. On the one hand, sports have sometimes served the interests of evil regimes, such as the Nazis’ propaganda in 1936. They have also led to political violence, e.g. the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, when Israeli athletes have been kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian activists. On the other hand, sports have helped and still help to relieve tensions in conflicting areas on many occasions. For instance, British and German soldiers temporarily stopped the battles on Christmas Eve, 1914. They called for a truce and played a football game in no man’s land. In 1969, a three-day cease-fire occurred in Nigeria after Pele’s arrival in Lagos. More recently, Didier Drogba campaigned against the civil war in Ivory Coast and an agreement was reached in 2006.

Moreover, sports open opportunities for national reconciliation and potential reunification. As shown above, the football team of Ivory Coast was made up of players from both parts of the divided country when it competed in the 2006 African Cup of Nations. As such, the squad was recognized as a symbol of reconciliation and the broad support gained all over the country helped to resume peace talks. In 2000, many people hoped for a better future in the Korean peninsula as 180 athletes and officials marched together under the same flag in the Olympic stadium in Sydney. This scenario occurred in Athens again, but came to an end in Beijing in 2008.

Finally, what conclusion can be drawn from these examples and the current situation? Do sports really have the power to change the course of conflicts across the globe? It seems that sports can influence events in the short run, by providing a momentum for peace and raising hopes for reconciliation. Through games or personal initiatives, a truce can be called and a temporary suspension of a conflict may be reached. This is a virtue advocated by the Olympic spirit since the creation of the Games. Indeed, sports do not have the capacity to transform or end a war, but can offer a moment of relief. From a historical perspective, they may also provide space to renegotiate norms within a country. Being the first Australian Aboriginal to represent Australia at the Olympics (in Barcelona in 1992), Cathy Freeman won the 400 meter race in Sydney. This victory helped to change the perception of the island’s history and led PM Kevin Rudd to issue a state apology to indigenous people, saying: “For the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry”. Mr. Rudd’s statement will not wipe away the past, but will probably lead to a reconsideration of the Aboriginal people’s rights and general situation.

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October 2012
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