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Ellen Freudenheim

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Q&A: British Lord Walked 3,000 Miles for 2012 Olympic Peace Truce, Now Says "Best Bet" is Rio Olympics 2016

Posted: 08/09/2012 10:06 am

As the 2012 Olympic Games draw to a close, we caught up with a member of the House of Lords, 51-year-old Michael Bates, a quirky, individualistic Conservative Party politician who walked 3,000 miles, or, as his website enumerates, "6,490, 401 steps," from Olympia, Greece to London earlier this year in an effort to drum up support for the ancient tradition of the Olympic Truce.

Lord Bates would be the first to agree that there's a disconnect between the stunning sporting event in London and the Olympics' too-obscure legacy of peace. Across the globe, viewers can channel surf schizophrenically between images of daring acrobatic feats in London and a devastating, downward-spiraling civil war in Damascus.

Q: What reaction has your Walk for Truce received in Parliament?

A: Invariably the reaction of my Parliamentary colleagues has been to kind of smile sweetly and say "How interesting and noble. Well done to you for raising it. Of course, the Truce is completely impractical but it's a nice idea."

I am tempted to remind colleagues that the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland began with a truce that is still holding. Cynics may not have noticed the Queen shaking hand with a former commander of the Irish Republican Army who is now Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Q: Why do you believe the Olympic Truce might actually be embraced as a mechanism for cessation of conflict?


A. In 1994 when the Truce was first declared as a resolution of the UN General Assembly it was for the Lillehammer Winter Games in Norway. On the eve of the Opening Ceremony there was a terrible atrocity similar to that which we are witnessing in Syria: a mortar shell hit a market square in Sarajevo killing 65 women and children and injuring many more. Sarajevo was under siege at the time during the Bosnian War and yet was also a former Olympic host city (1984).

The leadership of the IOC (International Olympic Committee), the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross came together to call on all sides to observe the truce and actually went to Sarajevo to break the siege to allow in humanitarian aid.

It worked then. It can work now. All that is required is for leaders to match the political will.



Q: How would the world look different had the Truce been observed now?

A. In conflict zones people won't stop fighting because they are full of fear of what will happen if they lay down their arms. The genius of the ancient Games was that it allowed the fighting men to stop killing each other with honour. Telling people with a historic grievance to 'stop killing and start loving each other' is naive.

That's why the Sarajevo model is our best hope for an expression of the truce in the modern world - to have athletes rather than politicians calling on people not to stop fighting but simply to allow in some humanitarian aid such as vaccinations and immunisations for children. And during that window the opportunity to begin a dialogue is presented.

Q: What did you learn from walking 3,000 miles to raise awareness of the Truce?

A. In a primary school assembly a seven-year-old girl said, "You have walked through 14 countries who were the nicest and who were the nastiest?"

The truth is they were all exactly the same. I stayed with people of all faiths, many nationalities, all colours, rich and poor, male and female, young and old the truth is that they were exactly the same: if you smiled they smiled back. if you asked for directions they did their best to help, if you asked for accommodation they asked for 50 Euros (double for Switzerland), they all loved their countries, thought their countryside was the most scenic in the world, their religion the most true, their women the most beautiful and their fighting men the most courageous. They distrusted their politicians, worried about the economy, all wanted the best for their children, and were generally suspicious of neighbouring countries or those of different ethnic groups.

It became clear to me that national, ethnic and religious differences are an entire social construct. That good and evil are not determined by a line on a map but by a personal choice we make every day. We were all created from one human mould and shaped by our environment, chiefly our family. We are all one--that is what I learned through my 3000-mile walk. It was worth the effort to discover it.

Q. Did the British government initiate any activity for international peace relative to the 2012 Games and the Truce?


A. Prime minister, David Cameron did call it a 'historic opportunity' and the Foreign Office did make attempts to push the idea. I believe that they could have done more especially having been handed a golden opportunity of the Truce resolution not only being signed but also co-sponsored by all 193 member states of the UN.

In international diplomacy, as in life, it is always better to maximise the use of what you have than to bemoan what you haven't. The world has come together to say that it wishes to observe a truce from 27 July to 9 September. In the spirit of the Olympics let us strain every sinew in pursuit of this ideal.


Q: Without the Olympic Truce, one might say that the modern Olympics are little more than an elite sporting event with huge financial benefits.


A. Who would have thought that the Olympics which promote at their core healthy living and sport to the young would become a mechanism for promoting fast food and fizzy drinks with mega broadcasting deals which ensure people watch rather than play sport?

That some athletes would need the dream of huge win bonuses and the allure of sponsorship deals to give of their Olympic best?

That an Olympic movement -- which had at its heart the ideal of causing people to leave their city-state identities behind for a few days and come together and compete purely as Olympians -- would become a industry of national prestige where governments that can afford it, and many who can't, rival each other to provide the best sports engineers, nutritionists and facilities in the aim of a ranking in the world medals table -- in the UK's case 4th, or at least above the Australians.

The modern Olympics may not be the ideal vehicle to deliver a peace, but it's the best we have got: no other sporting event has such an international awareness with 205 countries competing together in one place.

There is a nervousness -- which I respect -- on behalf of the IOC about bringing politics into the event as they don't want to return to the bad old days of the Cold war boycotts. But we should not miss a historic opportunity to be a channel for peace between nations, bring harmony where there is discord and remind us that we are all one and in this world together.



Q: But realistically, does the ancient Truce concept really have a place in a world filled with WMDs?

A. I'd guess that the idea of peace seemed as alien and naive to a Spartan or an Athenian in 776BC as it does to us today, the difference being that they were prepared at least to give it a chance.

The Olympics taking place now display a microcosm of how the world might be: every Olympian is of equal value and that value is conferred by virtue of simply competing, not winning. It matters not one jot whether you are a World Record holder in the 100-metres or a participant in the synchronized swimming, it matters not whether you are an Olympian from China, Great Britain or Sao Tome and Principe or Vanuatu. You are all the same, all subject the same laws and the same sanctions.




Q: What's next?

I think Rio 2016 is the best hope. We live in a media age and with the best will in the world people find the idea of a middle-aged, balding and overweight politician who no-one has ever heard of walking for peace is enough to send every viewer (apart from my mum) to sleep.

My hope my is that by the time the Games arrive in Rio their true purpose will be more clearly recalled and that will lead to a greater international realisation of the opportunities the Truce presents to us.

And, if Usain Bolt or Angelina Jolie could pick it up, then the media and young people would sit up and take notice.



Note: The above interview with Lord Bates was conducted by email July 2012.

 
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