Olympic Values

As the 2012 Summer Olympic Games open in London on July 27 to wondrous fanfare, billions of people will be riveted for weeks on the unfolding Olympic and Paralympic athletic competitions. Values, ethics, and belief aren't likely to feature as such in the headlines (except perhaps when a kerfuffle around drugs or money surfaces).

But the history of Olympic values, of Olympism, and the Olympic movement shed fascinating light on many of today's most demanding ethical challenges. Heated debates and eager evangelism pit (just for starters) individual excellence versus team effort, local (especially national) identity versus the notion of a united human family, punishment versus redemption, peace and cooperation versus conflict and competition, and commercial realism versus ideals of pure, soaring transcendence.

The Olympics are unique among athletic events, partly because of their ancient and hallowed history, but above all because they are identified with the highest ideals. It's not about athletics and competition alone. The core Olympic values (excellence, respect, friendship) point to meaningful rules for life. Beyond these three and the message of "faster, higher, stronger", there's an increasing focus on inclusion and that important value of fairness embodied in the notion of a "level playing field." The Olympic movement brings in 205 countries and it goes beyond athletics to culture and education. There's a huge apparatus of institutions and, hard to forget, billions upon billions of dollars at stake so its potential to reach both far and deep into human behavior is huge.

The Olympic values rank up there with human rights as a secular ethical framework. The ideals are captured in the core values that will flash on the screen and that athletes must sign on to as they become Olympians. They are drawn from the Olympic Charter that guides the movement. At its best, Olympism is "a philosophy of life, that exalts and combines in a balanced whole qualities of body, will, and mind." Olympism translates into the hope that the joys and benefits of sports can be part of human development in all its senses, from schools to families, reaching the farthest and poorest corners of the earth.

Religion is infused through these ethical ideals and issues, notwithstanding the secular tone and elements of the Olympics. Indeed, some religious figures see sporting competition as antithetical to true religion, above all because of the sure grip of commercial realities. But the ancient Greek Olympic games were a tribute to the Gods, and the rituals and underlying beliefs were inseparable from spiritual beliefs and the values that went with them. The same is true today. The modern games, reborn in the late 19th century, reflected the muscular and rather masculine Christianity of the day. But at the heart of the movement has always been a search for meaning, an ideal of human perfection, notions of justice and fairness, and an awareness that we have to deal with the tradeoffs that inevitably creep in.

One of the noblest ideals is the Olympic Truce, an ancient notion that is revived, in different ways, with the different games. In ancient Greece, all fighting stopped for months so that the warring city states could come together. The United Nations General Assembly this year passed, with a first ever unanimous 193 country votes, a resolution calling for peace during the Olympics. That seems a rather distant dream in today's fractious world but it has passionate advocates. They are exemplified by British politician Lord Michael Bates who walked for four months from Greece to London promoting the Truce. He wants to see an end to war but he takes the idea of a pause, a stepping back from conflict, still further, calling on us all to start with halting family conflicts and litigation during the Olympics. We'll see how far his message is heard.

As with all ethical values, the key issue is how ideals translate into practice. During the games, the guts of Olympic values are tested minute by minute and in the full light of media. They come through, for example, in how conflicts are resolved and how transparently and fairly rules are applied. The behavior of athletes and leaders of the movement (the full "Olympic family") is an even more important test of how lofty ideals are lived out in the realities of ethics in action.

In London last week, Lord Moynihan, Chairman of the British Olympic Association, and his most senior associates took two days away from the intense planning for the Games to reflect with a group of young leaders from five continents about the contemporary significance of the Olympic values and the issues they present as we look ahead. Georgetown University, the World Faiths Development Dialogue, and the Japanese inspired Worldwide Support for Development joined in a rich and passionate exchange. It's our hope that the issues we highlight from this exchange will help to revitalize the ideals and spark meaningful learning about what this special set of values, imbued with history, a spiritual quest, and the passions and joys of athletic achievements, can contribute to the search for peace and justice.