The Olympic Movement, the United Nations and the Pursuit of Common Ideals

©DAVID BURNETT

 

When the people of the world cheer on their national teams entering the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games on 5 August 2016, viewers will notice something new. For the first time, a team of athletes composed entirely of refugees will march proudly behind the Olympic flag as part of the Refugee Olympic Team.

In an effort to make the world better aware of the magnitude of the worldwide refugee crisis, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the creation of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team during the seventieth session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. Ten athletes of the Team will compete side by side with teams from all 206 National Olympic Committees. It will represent the 65 million refugees worldwide who have been left without a home because of conflict and war. The refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talents, skills and the strength of the human spirit. The Team will serve as a symbol of hope for all the world’s refugees and signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and enrich society. In this way, the Refugee Olympic Team stands for the universal values of tolerance, solidarity and peace. It is a reminder of the overall objective of the Olympic Movement—to make the world a better place through sport.

The Refugee Olympic Team also highlights the ideals that unite IOC and the United Nations. Both organizations are built on the same foundation of the shared values of tolerance, solidarity and peace. Their common goal is the peaceful development of humankind.

These values are at the heart of the Olympic Movement. They are anchored in the Olympic Charter, which codifies the principles of Olympism as conceived by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games. The Olympic Charter specifies that: “The goal 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 Olympic sport, everyone is equal, irrespective of their background, gender, social status or beliefs. This principle of non-discrimination in sport allows the Olympic Games to promote peace and understanding among all people. Sport is one of the few areas of human activity that has achieved universal law. Regardless of where in the world we practise sport, the rules are the same: the 100-metre run is always the 100-metre run, wherever you are. The rules are based on universal values of fair play, respect and friendship, and they are recognized worldwide.

In our globalized world, sport has a unique power to bring people together. The Olympic Games give us hope that a better world is possible, because they set an example of peaceful global interaction.

The Olympic Village is the best illustration of this spirit of unity in diversity. In the Village, athletes from all 206 National Olympic Committees live together in harmony under one roof and without any kind of discrimination. In what is literally a global village, the athletes get to know and understand each other on a human level by sharing their experiences, emotions and meals. They also share their respect for excellence, whether in victory or defeat. Thus, the Olympic athletes set an example for the whole world, showing that it is possible to engage in competition while living peacefully together.

In this sense, the United Nations and the Olympic Movement share not only the same goals, but the same principles of how to go about making the world a better place. The activities of both organizations highlight the importance of the principles of universality, equality, non-discrimination and respect for rules. This is what United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon aptly summarises when he says: “Olympic principles are United Nations principles”. The alignment of goals and principles make the United Nations and IOC natural partners in the pursuit of common ideals.

Sport is an integral part of today’s modern and diverse society. Through its global reach and universal appeal, sport plays an important role in promoting the development of a peaceful society. This mutual understanding about the role of sport lies at the heart of the partnership between the United Nations and IOC.

In 2014, IOC, recognizing the unique role of sport in today’s world, adopted Olympic Agenda 2020, a series of 40 recommendations that constitute the strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic Movement. The recommendations give a clear vision of how to strengthen the values of sport in a modern society and how to protect the uniqueness of the Olympic Games. Olympic Agenda 2020 is built on the recognition that in a globalized world, sport needs to put its integrative and unifying power at the service of humanity. For IOC, the recommendations of Olympic Agenda 2020 imply opening up to society and actively seeking partners to advance our objectives. In our highly interconnected and interdependent world, progress in safeguarding the values of sport and in strengthening sport in society requires cooperation. In order for sport to serve humanity, sport must engage with society. Olympic Agenda 2020 provides the framework for IOC to play this active role in the world.

The culmination of this renewed sense of cooperation is the deepened partnership between IOC and the United Nations in recent years. Perhaps the best expression of that spirit of partnership lies in the tradition of the Olympic Truce. The foundation for the ancient Olympic Games to take place in peace was a sacred truce—the ekecheiria—ensuring a cessation of hostilities and allowing for a safe passage for athletes and spectators to ancient Olympia and home again.

In close cooperation with IOC, the United Nations is continuing this 3,000-year-old tradition. Recognizing the symbolic relevance of the Olympic Truce for today’s world, the General Assembly has adopted an Olympic Truce resolution ahead of every Olympic Games since 1994. Most recently, on 26 October 2015, the Assembly adopted resolution 70/4, entitled “Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal”, with the support of over 180 Member States. It urges countries to observe the Olympic Truce from the seventh day before the start of the XXXI Olympic Summer Games on 5 August 2016 until the seventh day following the end of the XV Paralympic Summer Games on 17 September, which will also take place in Rio.

Beyond the Olympic Truce, the partnership between the United Nations and IOC has grown in many different areas. The memorandum of understanding signed between the two organizations in 2014 marked an important step in the pursuit of our common goals. Although IOC had been granted Permanent Observer status by the General Assembly in 2009, this first-ever memorandum of understanding between the United Nations and IOC created a formal framework for collaboration in many important areas where sport can promote social integration and economic development. Such areas include quality education, health, the empowerment of women and girls, and peacebuilding. Under this framework, IOC, together with National Olympic Committees, international sports federations, Organising Committees and individual athletes, will work together with Member States, Special Envoys, Special Advisers and Goodwill Ambassadors, as well as United Nations specialized agencies, funds and programmes.  

In a further milestone of this partnership, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the General Assembly in resolution 70/1 of 25 September 2015, specifically recognized sport as an “important enabler” to foster peace and understanding. The new agenda acknowledges “the growing contribution of sport to the realization of development and peace in its promotion of tolerance and respect and the contributions it makes to the empowerment of women and of young people, individuals and communities as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.”

Sport can help advance the efforts of the international community in very concrete ways when it comes to realizing the Sustainable Development Goals established by the 2030 Agenda, which will guide social and economic development around the globe over the next 14 years. The cross-cutting nature of sport allows it to address several of the Goals at the same time. Sport can play a particularly important role in ensuring healthy lives (Goal 3), ensuring inclusive and equitable education (Goal 4), achieving gender equality (Goal 5) and promoting peaceful and inclusive societies (Goal 16). IOC supports the Goals and, working in cooperation with the National Olympic Committees as well as through our own initiatives, plays an active role in helping all countries with their efforts to achieve this ambitious agenda.  

Another timely area of cooperation between the United Nations and IOC is in supporting refugees around the world. Although IOC has partnered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for over 20 years to assist refugees in many camps around the world, the current refugee crisis has placed a renewed urgency on our organizations to get the right help and expertise to where it is most needed. The appointment in 2014 of IOC Honorary President Jacques Rogge as Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General for Youth Refugees and Sport underlines the shared concern of our organizations on this humanitarian issue. It also underscores the common understanding that sport is an important tool for empowering youth from refugee communities. In the light of the current global refugee crisis, IOC has created a special fund of $2 million to develop relief projects for refugees through sport in collaboration with National Olympic Committees around the world. Since 2004, IOC and UNHCR have organized the “Giving is Winning” programme. This global solidarity campaign engages athletes, officials and sponsors of the Olympic Games, National Olympic Committees, and other Olympic Movement stakeholders to lend their support for refugees and raise awareness of their plight. 

The announcement of the formation of the Refugee Olympic Team during the General Assembly highlighted once more the shared interests of our organizations to provide solutions to one of the most pressing crises of our time. In organizing the Team, IOC worked closely with UNHCR, which will provide the Deputy Chef de Mission for the Team. Both organizations are charting new waters by supporting the Refugee Olympic Team, but we can build on the experience of over two decades of cooperation.   

The Rio 2016 Olympic Games take place in a fragile world. The refugee crisis is just one of many challenges that the international community is facing today. More than ever, the world needs the values of tolerance, solidarity and peace. As two organizations united by these shared values, the United Nations and IOC are uniquely positioned to work towards a better, more peaceful world. The Games will provide a much-needed message of hope in difficult times. This message is perhaps the most important legacy that the Olympic Games will bring to Rio de Janeiro, to Brazil, and to the world.