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"Games? Much more than that": Op-ed by UN Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace Wilfried Lemke

27 August 2012
W. Lemke_Press Conference_10 June 2008_Keystone.jpg
Wilfried Lemke, Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace - © Keystone

The following text is an open editorial by Mr. Wilfried Lemke, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace, on the legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and, more generally, on the social impact that mega-sports events can or should have:

"During this break in the action between the closing of the Olympic Games and the opening of the Paralympic Games in London this Friday, we have a unique opportunity to consider how both events can improve people’s lives and impact the world.

Some may see the Games only as a cutthroat competition where athletes put their bodies to the limit so they can hear their national anthem played over the loudspeakers, while fans dress in the bright colors of their home countries and count the medals won. However, underneath the bravado of each nation, behind the confident exterior of each athlete and beyond the commercial considerations, there lies the true spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which matches the fundamental values of the United Nations: tolerance, respect, equality, inclusion and peace.

On the field of play, athletes embody these values in a number of ways, from kicking the football out of bounds when a player is hurt to shaking hands or sharing hugs with opponents at the end of a race. Doing so, they show the true spirit of sport, competing on a fair and respectful basis. Athletes also stand for these values when serving as volunteers in their own communities, visiting developing nations throughout the world and serving as Goodwill Ambassadors for the UN and other organizations. I applaud those athletes who have truly embraced their responsibilities as role models, leaders and agents for change, as they recognize how their celebrity can be used to help make the world a better place.

Athletes are not alone in their capacity to effect change, with the hosts of the Olympic and Paralympic Games also in a unique position to create a powerful global legacy. As host of the 2012 Games, the United Kingdom has embraced this opportunity to invest in the future of their country and the world with the ‘International Inspiration’ programme. This programme has, according to the organization, benefitted over 12 million young people in 20 countries, and will continue to create sustainable social, economic and sporting legacies throughout the country and abroad. I commend the efforts of the UK government, the London Organizing Committee and their partner organization UNICEF in setting the bar so high for future sporting events.

The London Games have also been conceptualized as the ‘Games for Everyone’, where diversity and inclusion are celebrated and featured in the Olympic and Paralympic Games as well as in the legacy efforts. This publicity and support of diversity and inclusion sends a powerful message around the world that diversity and difference—be it in ethnicity, origin, lifestyle, religion or physical ability—is not a barrier to progress but can be a driver of it. Also, I am pleased that the UK, which hosted a precursor of the Paralympic Games in 1948, the ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’, particularly emphasized the importance of the Paralympics. Although the Olympics and Paralympics are nowadays part of the single bid a city puts forward benefitting from economics of scale, still much needs to be done to reach equal prioritization regarding sport for persons with disabilities. Stakeholders include international organizations, governments but also the media. With regard to the latter, in most countries coverage of Paralympic sport unfortunately still lags behind, while in some it does not exist at all. More public awareness is needed to change prevailing negative perceptions in society, including those towards persons with mental disabilities. In that connection, Special Olympics International and their World Games have made much progress in transforming prejudices and promoting the rights of athletes with mental disabilities for instance.

The United Nations has profound partnerships with the Olympic and Paralympic families, represented by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) respectively, as well as with the Special Olympics, which are all based on the understanding that development, inclusion and peacebuilding goals can be achieved through sport.

The Olympic Truce is one example of this partnership. The Truce is an historic part of the Olympic Games; in ancient times, all warring parties laid down their weapons during the Games, providing relief in times of constant war. This tradition of the Olympic Truce was revived in 1993 by a UN Resolution, reminding the world that the peaceful spirit of the Games can be a stepping-stone for advancing conflict prevention and peacebuilding objectives.

This past year, the UN Resolution calling for the Olympic Truce for the 2012 London Games was adopted and co-sponsored by all of the 193 UN Member States, indicating the importance that the international community places on the value of sport for peace. While a concrete universal ceasefire was unfortunately not observed so far, with ongoing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries, the Olympic Truce remains a noble goal and a powerful reminder of the spirit, ideals and historic potential of the Games. The Truce also reaffirms the actions of many programmes and organizations working towards unity and reconciliation in communities around the world.

Other efforts in the United Nations to support and promote the values shared with the Olympic and Paralympic families include, just to name a few, the work of the UN Environment Programme on environmental protection and sustainability, the World Health Organization’s contribution to disease prevention and control and the engagement of various UN organizations in the educational programme of the Youth Olympic Games.

While I am amazed by the efforts of so many to make the true spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games a reality—and here I would like to pay tribute to the thousands of volunteers behind the scenes—I also dream of the Games having an even greater impact; for there is no event in the world that has the power to bring so many people together, generating excitement and attention that can be harnessed for the good of humanity.

As part of this dream, I see athletes becoming even more aware of their status as social role models and more involved in promoting peace as well as sustainable change. I see gender equality and women’s rights making strides through ever-greater female participation in sports, from the grassroots up to the elite levels. I see the UN working even more closely with organizing committees of large sporting events to fully harness the power of sport as a driving force towards a safer, more secure, more sustainable, more equitable future.

For now some of the dream is already reality, some is just possibility. But the efforts of those involved with the 2012 London Games is giving me hope that we are heading in the right direction. I encourage future hosts of sporting events and sport organizations to take up the baton and ensure that every major sporting event leaves behind a sustainable legacy.

Now, the torch is being passed to Rio de Janeiro to light up again the Summer Olympic and Paralympic flame in four years time. What we could see and feel from Rio’s splendid performance at London’s closing ceremony are not only the enthusiasm and passion of this nation, but also their great multicultural embrace to the diversity of races, lifestyles and tastes.

Standing in the spotlight of the world thanks to mega sport events such as the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the 2014 Football World Cup, the city has already been serving as a global platform to discuss the future of humanity. A recent and remarkable achievement of such was the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (known as Rio +20) held this June, which adopted an outcome document “The Future We Want”. While we enjoy the London legacy in the coming years, there will be definitely much to expect from Rio in its contributions to and through sport."


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