In recent weeks images and stories of the Christmas truce in 1914 have offered us a reassuring flicker of humanity in a time of collective insanity. The Queen used her to Christmas message to the Commonwealth to speak movingly about truce referring to the Olympics and the wider potential of sport to bring about reconciliation. The truce has been seized upon a bit like fireworks on bonfire night or Easter eggs because as it draws a discrete veil over the more challenging reality beneath the surface.
It is one of the great ‘What if?’ moments in human history. What if the Christmas truce of 1914 had held and spread? No Gallipoli (1915), no Somme (1916), no Passchendaele (1917). No Hitler, no Stalin, no Holocaust, no Hiroshima? If only they knew then what we know now might they have tried harder to keep the spirit of Christmas 1914 alive? Probably. And one hundred years from now will our descendants look at this moment in history and ask why we didn’t seize opportunities for peace and reconciliation presented today? Possibly.
Of course truce looks romantic viewed from the perspective of history but it took incredible courage and vision to bring it about. In 776 BC three kings from the Greek Peloponnese pondered how they could bring an end to the constant state of war which existed between the city states of Ancient Greece. Their solution was to host a sporting event on the neutral ground at Olympia.
Surrounding the Games there would be a sacred truce which would enable competitors, officials and spectators to travel in safety to Olympia. Competitors would be selected not only on the basis of their athleticism but also on the basis of their moral character. When they arrived at the Games they would need to leave outside any vestment or representation of their city of origin because they competed in the Games not against each other as Athenians, Lacedaemonians, Thebans or Spartans but together as Olympians.
Despite the cynicism of politicians and the warnings of generals the Olympic truce was incredibly successful. The Games at Olympia had an unbroken run of almost one thousand years and violations of the sacred truce were rare and swiftly punished by sophisticated system of fines and in extreme suspension from the Games. The Olympic truce wasn’t just part of the Ancient Games it was their entire point. The leaving behind of cultural identity and assuming a new united identity of Olympians, living and eating together for the period of the Games was to show that our tribal loyalties were a mere accident of birth and that we were all human first. Olympisim was surely one of the most advanced and progressive philosophies ever conceived of by humankind.
When the Modern era of the Games began in 1896 they were designed as a platform for nation states to engage in friendly competition with each other. Far from leaving all vestiges of nationality behind they became an indispensable part of the sporting drama, medal tables, flag draped athletes completing their victory laps. Indeed it is this inter-national aspect of competition that has made the Olympic and Paralympics Games the greatest show on earth.
The sense of us sharing in the triumph and disaster, the hopes and dreams of our own athletes that give us that collective frisson of national pride and identity and makes it compulsive viewing around the world. The International Olympic Committee deserve immense credit for this success. Yet it is worth occasionally pausing to reflect the very different purposes and practices of the Ancient and Modern Games and what tells us about ourselves.
It is not surprising that against this backdrop the concept of truce became to be seen more as symbolic than sacred; more violated more than observed. In just one hundred and twenty years the Games have been cancelled three times, subjected to terrorist attacks twice and mass boycotts five times. What is it that we have lost in the intervening three millennia of civilisation and can it ever be rediscovered?
In October 2015, thanks to the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations, Her Britannic Majesty’s Permanent Representative will be afforded the opportunity to put their name to the General Assembly Resolution declaring the Olympic truce to be observed for the period of the 2016 Rio Olympic & Paralympic Games. As when the Truce resolution was proposed for London 2012 Games there will be many who will survey the precarious state of international affairs and the multiplicity of threats we face and regard the whole exercise as being at best a meaningless gesture and at worst a naïve gamble with our national security and the security of the Games. This is understandable….
The Greeks I am sure had the same concerns given the perpetual state of war which preceded the Ancient Games. The German soldiers who first climbed out of their trenches and extended a hand of friendship to their British enemies must have been viewed the same. Yet their actions remind us it takes way more courage to lay down a weapon than to pick one up. It requires far more skill to build a bridge than to erect a wall. These are the same small steps of peace taken into no-man’s land which have done so much to inspire us as we have remembered them in recent days.
As the Queen said in her Christmas message: “Sometimes it seems that reconciliation stands little chance in the face of war and discord. But, as the Christmas truce a century ago reminds us, peace and goodwill have lasting power in the hearts of men and women.” Could Rio 2016 be the Games in which the international community draw again from that deep well of human goodness and use it to refresh the parched places and heal hurting lives of our world? We share the same opportunity as those soldiers on the Western Front a century ago and those Greek kings three millennia ago the only question remaining is can we share their courage to take it?
In 2011 Michael Bates commenced a 2916 mile, 300 day solo-walk from Olympia, Greece to London to draw attention to the potential of the Olympic truce www.walkfortruce.org