In a few minutes time the Opening Ceremony will get underway for the 2016 Lillehammer Winter Youth Olympic Games . It will be a spectacular curtain raiser for what will be an amazing nine days of sport. The pristine slopes, rinks and runs will seem a world away from the conflict zones of our world but there is a powerful link which reminds us of the power of sport to bring about peace:
In February 1994 Lillehammer was the host of the Winter Olympic Games. On the day of the Opening Ceremony a mortar bomb landed in a market place in the besieged city of Sarajevo killing 65 people and injuring hundreds more. The world was shocked. Sarajevo was a former Winter Olympic host city (1994). But what could be done?
Step forward Juan Antonio Samaranch the then president of the International Olympic Committee who was armed not with weapons but with something far more powerful–an ideal. That ideal was the ancient concept of the Olympic truce which for the first time had been ratified by the United Nations General Assembly. As those attending the Opening Ceremony help up lights in solidarity with the suffering people of Sarajevo the president of the IOC invoked for the first time in history the UN Olympic truce and called for an immediate ceasefire.
Cynics were mocking of the gesture, “are these hardened and brutal men of violence really going to pay any attention to a two and a half thousand year old romantic notion from peaceful ski slopes thousands of miles away?” To everyone’s amazement they did. All sides agreed to a ceasefire in the spirit of the Olympic truce. Then through the International Olympic Committee and the International Committee of the Red Cross much needed food and medication was allowed in and women, children and wounded people allowed out. It was a rare glimpse of humanity and hope in a city and war which had become synonymous with inhumanity and hopelessness.
Lillehammer 1994 was the point at which the modern world rediscovered the ancient power of the possibility of peace through sport. The truce wasn’t just part of the ancient Olympic games in Greece, it was the entire point of the ancient Olympic games in Greece.
In this Olympic year covered by another UN General Assembly Resolution co-signed by 180 countries calling for the observance of the Olympic truce we should never be afraid to test its power to relieve suffering and bring hope to the darkest corners of our world. The prospects for a ceasefire in Sarajevo 1994 seemed as impossible as the prospects for a ceasefire in Syria today but the Olympics is all about making the impossible, possible. That was the lesson of Lillehammer 1994 and it still holds true in Lillehammer and Rio 2016. All that is required is someone again to put it to the test.