You would not know it from much of the sports media, but the Sochi Winter Games have been ongoing, amidst the greatest crisis in relations between the United States and Russia since the Cold War. This stage of the games is known as the Paralympics, a series of events for hundreds of world-class athletes who are disabled. Often overshadowed during typical Olympiads, this year attention for the exploits of Paralympic athletic has been buried by Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and the subsequent inter-imperial diplomatic standoff with the United States. Seeing the Olympics, however, walk comfortably with war raises a question: whatever happened to the “Olympic Truce”? If even the most diehard sports fans have no idea what the Olympic Truce happens to be, it is hardly surprising.
The roots of the Olympic Truce stretch back to Ancient Greece back in ninth-century BC, as a sports-themed treaty to enable the safe passage of athletes, artists and fellow travelers to and from the games of the Olympia. After centuries of dormancy, the United Nations teamed up with the International Olympic Committee to revive the tradition in 1993. The goal was to encourage a truce in the war-torn city of Sarajevo, host of the 1984 Winter Games. Since then, the UN General Assembly has routinely adopted a universally supported resolution to respect the Olympic Truce.
But the Olympic Truce is like a unicorn bought with a bucket of Bitcoin. Just because you believe in it, doesn’t make it real. Numerous countries have steamrolled the truce. The United States, of course, never curtailed the wars and occupations in Afghanistan or Iraq for the benefit of the Olympics. During the 2008 Beijing Games, as well, Russia and Georgia continued their battle over South Ossetia. The Games have been about as effective at stopping the violence of war as a West Bank checkpoint.
After contemplating a Paralympic boycott, Ukrainian Olympic officials opted to allow their athletes to compete. In a symbolic—read: empty—gesture, the United States did not dispatch an official delegation, though it did send its Paralympic athletes. UK ministers as well boycotted the Games, but British athletes did not. Sports ministers from Austria, Canada, Finland and Poland also stayed away in protest. Britain’s Prince Edward and Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria both announced that they would give the Paralympics the royal snub.
Meanwhile, the International Paralympic Committee has succumbed to the formulaic charade that politics and sports shouldn’t mix. IPC President Sir Philip Craven lived up to his unfortunate albeit appropriate surname, repeatedly mouthing the moldy mantra that we should “leave politics to the politicians.” All the while, he has heaped praise on Putin for organizing a “fantastic” Paralympics.
Partway through the Games, Craven even proclaimed that host cities need not be compelled to abide by basic human-rights standards. Human rights, he said, “is not something we get involved with.” They have learned nothing from the blaring lesson of Sochi 2014: Olympic honchos absolutely need to appraise the human-rights record of each potential host.
The great tragedy of it all is that the inter-imperial wrangling in Crimea has overshadowed the Paralympics themselves, an event that speaks to the best angels of sports. Ironically, the Paralympics are once again a vibrant venue for military veterans making miraculous comebacks after the ravages of war. You see people from all over the world who left limbs on battlefields using sports and competition to rebuild their minds and bodies. For the United States, after twelve years of war, eighteen of the eighty athletes we sent are military vets.
The Paralympics have also reminded us that athletes can be inspiring vessels of political goodwill, as when Ukrainian and Russian biathletes shared the medal podium and the Russian clapped for his Ukrainian competition when he was announced. Ukrainian athletes also showed the Games can be a platform for principled political protest. At the opening ceremonies they sent a single emissary to carry the Ukrainian flag while the rest of the squad skipped the flag-waggling procession, remaining in their stadium-floors seats in dignified solidarity.
In addition, the Ukrainian cross-country skiing relay team covered their silver medals with their hands on Saturday at a ceremony as Russia was bestowed with the gold.
As Ukraine team official Nataliya Harach told the Associated Press, “It is not a political protest, it’s us fighting for peace. It’s a different kind of protest. We put our hands on our medals because you cannot do anything more.… If we demonstrate some way else, if we say something, it will not be in the rules of the International Paralympic Committee. So we try to do a silent protest and because we don’t want any disqualifications.”
The Paralympics highlight the finest people we have in the world of sports. The question is whether we will ever see a true Olympic Movement that will pressure the IOC to make sure that the host countries don’t use the Games to bankrupt their countries, oppress their citizens and rally national feeling as a pretext to war. We saw that in Sochi, and thanks to the unsavory masters of the IOC and IPC, we will surely see it again.