As we near the closing of the first ever Olympics in South America, the Summer Olympic Games of Rio 2016, the world also celebrates, on August 19, the values of humanitarian action. How can we link the Olympic spirit and World Humanitarian Day?
Thirteen years ago, in 2003, a suicide attack against the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad during the Iraq War resulted in 22 deaths and numerous seriously injured. As a United Nations civil servant, I suffered the attack in my own skin, since I was working at the building that was targeted. Even while I survived the building's explosion and collapse, the horror of the wounded and the dead will be with me forever. Among the fatal victims was my partner, Sergio Vieira de Mello, head of the United Nations (UN) mission, with a career dedicated to the displaced and refugees, and a native of Rio de Janeiro. The brutality and scale of the attack prompted the UN to consecrate August 19 as World Humanitarian Day. The weight of this experience compels me to ponder on the bond between the celebration of Rio 2016 and humanitarian values.
The Olympic Games, with its glitz and controversy, have traditionally been cause of frantic polemics and debate. On one hand, there is a giddy and naïve approach towards celebration. On the other, the critical stance decries that the Games often function as a distraction or, at worst, are used as concealment to hide structural injustices, poverty and corruption. Others, more moderate, underscore that the Olympics are never about sports alone, but are actually about humanity itself: a promising vehicle for surmounting obstacles and for the development of people, their values, and education, far beyond manipulation.
The inspiring character of Olympism is palpable, for example, in the personal narratives like that of marathoner Vanderlei de Lima, legitimately picked to light up the Rio 2016's Olympic pyre. In Athens 2004, Vanderlei was unfairly stripped of the gold medal when a spectator deliberately interrupted his final dash to the finish line. Beyond the incident, which allowed his followers to catch up to him and take the lead, demoting him to the bronze, Silva ran the last meters in a show of joy and emotion, using gestures that are, to this day, a hymn to sportsmanship, Olympism and life.
Humanitarianism works for all humanity without distinction or discrimination, under the idea that all men deserve respect and have equal dignity, combating human suffering. Therefore, humanitarianism is the perfect antithesis of the "us versus them" dichotomy, often seen in fanaticism, nationalism, and discriminatory processes. In fact, the principle of dignity and equality of humanitarianism is present in all major religions: only a fanatical, misguided and forced vision of religion leads to terrorism.
Beyond this discussion, and on the occasion of World Humanitarian Day, it is important to think about what the Olympics will leave us after the curtain draws this weekend.
For the first time in history, a multinational group of athletes, with no other common denominator than that of being refugees, will compete in the arena. While in Sydney 2000 the athletes of Timor-Leste (a nation in whose struggle for independence Sergio and I participated) paraded under the white Olympic flag because they did not yet have an officially recognized country, the athletes from Congo, Syria, and other places were forced to flee their own to save their lives, and beg to be accepted elsewhere under asylum.
That is why not every antagonistic or confrontational stance turns into terrorism, exclusion or wars. Sport, as the virtuous expression of human self-improvement, honors standing in direct contact with another in the context of values and respect, to seek becoming a better person.
Humanitarianism and Olympism share the universal ideals of respect and dignity. Their opposites, terrorism, prejudice and violence are today our main challenges. Perhaps we should see in Olympism and the principles of humanitarianism a tool for reconciliation between peoples and a solution to these conflicts. Hopefully, the practice of these ideals will take us, in a not too distant future, to Games where the presence of a refugee team is a pleasant memory of the past, and of a period that has since then, been long overcome.