Written by


All articles are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Conflicts cast shadow over Olympic tradition of peace

minutes reading time

Current conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East threaten to turn the Paris 2024 Games into a geopolitical battleground.

The Summer Olympic Games will return to Paris this July exactly a century after it last took place in France. Paris is the hometown of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games.

Bronze, silver and gold medals.

When Coubertin first conceived the revival of this ancient Greek tradition in the late 19th century, he imagined a scene where nations celebrated friendly internationalism by playing sports together. His Olympic idealism provides the foundation for the Olympic charter, a set of rules and guidelines for the organisation of the Olympic Games that emphasise international fraternity and solidarity.

In 1992, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) moved to uphold Coubertin’s legacy by renewing the tradition of the sacred truce associated with the ancient Olympics. The Olympic truce calls for the cessation of hostilities between warring nations during the Olympic Games and beyond.

The Olympic truce has contributed to peace before – albeit only fleetingly. During the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the South and North Korean delegations marched into the stadium together under the single flag of the Korean peninsula. They also fielded a unified Korean ice hockey team for this competition.

The IOC hopes that the forthcoming Olympics will be a moment for world peace. But with the Paris Olympic torch relay starting next month, the world is plagued with conflict and animosity. And tensions in eastern Europe and the Middle East show no sign of easing.

The 2024 Olympics will take place amid geopolitical turmoil. These conflicts will affect the Olympic Games and throw into question the capacity of sport to reduce tension between nations.

Banned Russian athletes

Moscow ordered its army to invade Ukraine four days after the end of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The IOC considered this aggression a violation of the Olympic truce and subsequently banned Russian athletes from participating in the Paris Olympic Games.

Russia was unhappy with this decision. It condemned the IOC as being biased towards the west and even appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against the suspension. But in February 2024, the court eventually upheld the IOC’s position.

Russian athletes will not be absent from the Olympics. The IOC allows them to take part in the competition not as a state delegation but as neutral individuals. Ukraine finds this situation unacceptable, arguing that neutrality cannot remove Russian identity from the Olympics.

The IOC has denounced the Russian occupation of Ukrainian territories. But it also admits the complexity of this geopolitical conflict, and acknowledges that its best approach would be to keep impartiality on this matter. Ukraine responded by implementing a policy for its athletes to boycott any contests involving Russians at Paris 2024, although it later lifted this rule.

Unhappy Russians

The war between Israel and Hamas will further complicate the 2024 Olympics, with Olympic officials poised to face allegations of inconsistency concerning Israeli athletes.

This conflict is no less brutal than the war between Ukraine and Russia. According to the Hamas-run health ministry, more than 30,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war. And there is also evidence that Israeli forces have committed war crimes in the Gaza Strip.

However, the resolution for the Olympic truce of Paris 2024 singles out the suspension of Russia and does not contain a single word on the violence in Israel and Palestine.

These two warring parties can participate in the Olympics – though the strict blockade of the Gaza Strip will make it hard for Palestinians to take part in the games. But the Russian delegation is prevented from taking part in the same competition. Russia considers this discrepancy unfair and again blames Olympic officials for siding with the west.

Israel and its allies are seemingly very vocal within the Olympic circle. In October 2023, the IOC offered Yeal Arad, who in 1992 became the first Israeli to win an Olympic medal, their prestigious membership. When accepting this privileged appointment, she urged the Israeli athletes to give inspiration and hope to their fellow citizens suffering from the tragedy.

At the same IOC session, Cassy Wasserman, the chairperson of the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, also declared himself “proud to be Jewish” before his speech.

The 2024 Olympic Games in Paris will take place amid conflict and contention. The Olympic truce and the neutrality of international sport is the idealism of the IOC. Not only that, it volunteers to be a messenger of world peace.

Can Paris 2024 be a catalyst for this vision? Unfortunately, the capacity of the Olympics to act as a festival of peaceful internationalism will inevitably be curtailed in this period of geopolitical turmoil.

Despite the facade of festivity in Paris, the escalation of hostilities around the world is likely to trouble the Olympic Games in the French capital.

The article was first published in The Conversation on March 14th, 2024. Read the original.

Image credit: Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images