La trêve olympique, une tradition inventée par le Comité international olympique

The Olympic Truce: A Tradition Invented at the End of the Cold War

On Tuesday 21 November 2023, the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly adopted, by a formal vote (the Russian Federation and Syria abstained), its annual resolution on ‘Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal.’ When presenting the resolution, the French Olympian Tony Estanguet, now an International Olympic Committee member and president of the Paris 2024 Organising Committee, stated that the Olympic Truce originated in ancient Greece, a claim made by all his predecessors since 1993. However, the Ekecheria of ancient times never led to a cessation of hostilities, much less to peace, a term that was not coined until the fourth century BC. Its purpose was merely to guarantee pilgrims, including athletes, safe passage to Olympia for the games. Thus, the modern Olympic Truce is what the British historian Eric Hobsbawm called an ‘invented tradition’, created by the IOC during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995) and proclaimed every two years by the UN.

The idea that sport, like free trade and teaching universal history and Esperanto, can promote international peace began circulating in liberal pacifist circles in the early 1890s, a time when competition between Western athletes and clubs was at its height. Hodgson Pratt, a British pacifist, first raised the idea at the Third Universal Peace Congress, in Rome on 14 November 1891, when he suggested holding annual competitions in athletics (walking, running, swimming, rowing), prose and poetry between European and American university students. Pratt did not use the term Olympic Games, but his suggestion was taken up the following year by a young Parisian aristocrat called Pierre de Coubertin. In a speech given on 25 November 1892, Coubertin presented his idea of an Olympic Games open not just to students but to all amateur sportsmen throughout the world, who, nevertheless, represented a tiny social elite. With its pacifist influences, Coubertin’s proposal was very different from the Wenlock Olympian Games and pan-Hellenic Games.

Coubertin knew about the pan-Hellenic Games, a recent attempt to revive the ancient games, sponsored by the Greek entrepreneur Evangelos Zappas, and he was aware of the traditional character of the Wenlock Olympian Games, whose founder, Dr William Penny Brookes, he had met in 1890. Coubertin, however, wanted to stress his proposal’s modernity, so his speech made no mention of Pratt, Brookes or Zappas and focused on the sports of the time, whether they had originated in Great Britain or in other countries. On the eve of the international congress in June 1894, which agreed to ‘re-establish the Olympic Games in a modern form’, Coubertin made it clear that the only aspect of the ancient games he wanted to recreate was the ‘sacred truce which the Greek nations agreed upon in order to behold youth and the future’.

Coubertin, who also misunderstood Ekecheria, was dismayed to see his beautiful ideal already being undermined during the first modern Olympic Games, in Athens in 1896, due to Greece and America’s displays of sporting nationalism in the stadium. Even worse, as he saw it, by the 1908 and 1912 Olympics governments had begun subsidising their Olympic teams. To protect the Olympic Games from political interference, particularly from Greece, in 1906 Coubertin considered moving the IOC’s headquarters to Switzerland, which had been granted ‘perpetual neutrality’ by the Congress of Vienna in March 1815. However, Coubertin, himself, failed to respect the truce at the end of the First World War, as he and Belgium’s IOC member Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, who would later succeed Coubertin as IOC president, decided that it would be unacceptable for athletes from the former German and Austrian empires to take part in the 1920 Antwerp Games.

Rhetoric extolling international peace through sport did not disappear between the wars, but the concept was so malleable that even Hitler was able to make use of it at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. While Germany’s armaments factories were running at full capacity, the Führer wrote in the official report of the Games: ‘Sporting and chivalrous competition awakens the best human qualities. It does not sever, but on the contrary, unites the opponents in mutual understanding and reciprocal respect. It also helps to strengthen the bonds of peace between nations. May the Olympic Flame therefore never be extinguished.’

The 1948 London Olympics provided an opportunity for the IOC to rekindle the notion of international peace through sport, but its optimism was short lived. By 1952 the sporting Cold War being waged by the Soviet Union’s and United States’ athletes and media prompted the organisers of the Helsinki Olympics to discreetly evoke the notion of an Olympic truce. The IOC first took up the idea four years later, when the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary raised the spectre of Hungarian athletes being banned from travelling to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Three decades later, in the wake of the boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Greece seized upon the concept as an argument to try and persuade the IOC to set up a permanent home for the Olympic Games in Greece and thereby avoid the event becoming embroiled in international politics.

Although it rejected Greece’s proposal, the IOC made strenuous efforts during the 1980s to persuade the UN to draw up an international treaty banning sports boycotts. These efforts failed to bear fruit, partly because the UN’s senior administrators saw the IOC as a potential competitor for UNESCO in the field of education through sport, one of the responsibilities of UNESCO’s education arm since the 1960s.

The IOC found itself in a particularly perilous situation on 30 May 1992, when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 757, one of whose clauses banned athletes from the former Yugoslavia from taking part in international competitions. That the ban included the 1992 Olympic Games, scheduled to take place in IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch’s (1980-2001) home city of Barcelona between 25 July and 9 August, was a worrying development for the IOC, as it directly threatened its hegemony over international sport. In fact, losing its hegemonic position has been the IOC’s greatest fear since the 1920s, when sport’s international federations considered distancing themselves from the elitist and exclusive IOC by creating an International Sports Bureau within the League of Nations.

Samaranch, a high-ranking official under General Franco and Spain’s ambassador to the Soviet Union during the transition to democracy, worked tirelessly behind the scenes to try and persuade the UN to modify its position. Assisted by Kéba Mbaye, his international affairs advisor and a former UN official, François Carrard, the IOC’s director-general, and Fékrou Kidane, a judge at the International Court of Justice since 1982, the president of Senegal’s Constitutional Council and an IOC member since 1973, Samaranch undertook intensive discussions with the G7 countries. However, the urgency of the situation was against him, and the IOC was forced to accept the UN’s conditions: Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian athletes would be allowed to compete in the Games as ‘independent participants’, but they could not take part in the opening and closing ceremonies and they had to compete under the Olympic flag/anthem and wear white uniforms with no indication of their nationality. The IOC issued its first call for an Olympic Truce — demanding ‘the cessation of all armed conflict from the seventh day before the opening of the Games to the seventh day after their closure, on the model of the ancient truce’ — just four days before the Barcelona Olympics.

The challenge for the IOC was to gain the UN’s support, which it obtained on 25 October 1993, in the form of the UN General Assembly’s first resolution upholding the Olympic Truce. The IOC’s strategy for winning over the UN and its agencies included a fundraising campaign for the people of Sarajevo, launched in August 1993. Sarajevo, which had been destroyed during the conflict, was a highly symbolic place for the IOC’s purposes, as it had not only hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, it was also the scene of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination — the spark that ignited World War I.

Sadly, the Olympic Truce has never resulted in significant advances toward peace. Even worse, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has violated the truce on three occasions, ordering invasions of Georgia (Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics), Crimea (Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics) and Ukraine (Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics). If the UN and the IOC really wanted to achieve peace through sport, rather than declaring an Olympic Truce, they should perhaps do more to establish legal protection for athletes and sports leaders who put themselves at risk by speaking out in favour of peace.

Contact details:

Professor Patrick Clastres
Mobile: 0033 633 22 14 93


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