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The Olympic Truce: A Romantic, Alluring Olympic Tradition

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Talk about a lost opportunity.

With the 2012 London Olympics in full swing -- and the city of London itself nearly in a state of siege with extensive anti-terrorism security measures -- some of us are nostalgic for an idea that probably won't ever see the light of day: the Olympic Truce.

In theory, the ancient Olympic Truce represents an opportunity, every two years on the occasion of the summer and the winter Games, for the international community to focus resources and attention on humanitarian crises, civil strife or international conflicts -- and call for a cessation of hostilities for a period of up to two months.

In its simplicity (and hoary historicity) the Olympic Truce has a certain allure.

For idealists, classicists, and romantics, the Olympic Truce is that needle-in-a-haystack idea -- two months of peace! -- that just could, maybe, change the world.

The latest Truce idealist is British Lord Michael Bates of Langbaurgh. In anticipation of the 2012 Games he launched his "Walk for Truce," literally walking 3,000 miles from Greece to London. His goal was to cajole and lobby the British government to take action to make the Truce meaningful in 2012.

Most realpolitik types, on the other hand, see the Olympic Truce as just window-dressing for the showy, blockbuster global business-cum-sporting event that is the contemporary Olympic Games.

Chances are, Mitt Romney -- a former head of the U.S. Olympic Committee who presided over the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games, during whose tenure the Olympic Truce was presented de minimus -- falls in the latter category.

Ancient Tradition, Modern Opportunity

The Truce is an old idea with expansive boundaries.

Born in ancient Greece in the 8th or 9th century BC, the Olympic Truce called for a peace before, during and after the Olympic Games. Originally created to ensure "safe passage" for Olympic participants and spectators forced to travel through areas plagued by warfare and fighting, the Olympic Truce evolved into a period of peace observed in the Greek world on the occasion of the games. It was observed for over a millennium.

It was an accepted tradition in the Hellenic world, cited by Thucydides. The Olympic Truce began one week before the opening of the Games, and lasted until one week afterwards. Observing it was not an act of goodwill. The Truce was protected by policies and politics, and enforced by fines and penalties. The Olympic Truce tradition ended as the pagan festival of the Olympic Games faded with the rise of Christianity in ancient Rome.

In modern times, the Olympic Truce has been treacly recast as an ancient, virtuous and completely irrelevant rite about which every member nation of the UN can, therefore, agree. Reams of statements -- UN resolutions, public comments made by such leaders as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and flowery speeches made by UN representatives -- toothlessly support the idea. Hundreds of world luminaries from Bill Clinton to Nelson Mandela have endorsed the Olympic Truce. Embracing the concept of an Olympic Truce is about as tricky politically as endorsing motherhood.

Of course, the Olympics are rife with overstatement. An article in this week's Wall Street Journal by historian Andrew Robert titled "Olympic Ideals Don't Match Reality" tells the tale.

But every so often the Olympic Truce -- quaint but with a powerful historical resonance -- pops into public view again, a gnarly old idea with tantalizing potential for the contemporary world.

Olympic Truce Repeatedly Invoked, Never Implemented

The Olympic Truce has been invoked numerous times since the revival of the Olympic Games in the late 19th century.

In the post-WWII era the Olympic Truce was first invoked in 1956 in response to the crackdown by the USSR on the Hungarian uprising. It was invoked again in conjunction with the United Nations in response to conflicts and crises: in the early 1990s, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and in 1998 in anticipation of the U.S. bombing of Iraq.

The Olympic Truce period was extended in a UN resolution introduced by Italy in 2005, in anticipation of the Turin Games. So today the Olympic Truce could theoretically offers a window of seven to eight weeks for cessation of fighting.

In 2008, during the Beijing Olympics, over 100 Olympic athletes called for an Olympic Truce during the genocidal conflict in Sudan's Darfur.

But, the chasm between invoking and implementing is even further than the distance between Olympia and London. A modern Olympic Truce has never been implemented. To do so would require unprecedented international cooperation.

As foot-weary Lord Bates writes, "All 193 Member States of the United Nations sign up to the UN Resolution unanimously, but there is absolutely no record of any signatory to the Resolution ever taking any 'initiative to abide by the Truce, individually or collectively.'"

Under Mitt Romney's Tenure During Salt Lake City Olympics, Scope of Olympic Truce Shrunk

Curiously, the Olympic Truce is something that the Republican Presidential candidate is familiar with. Indeed, Romney may have played a tangential role in limiting its scope some ten years ago.

In 2002, when the U.S. hosted Salt Lake City Olympic Games, the language of the standard biennial UN resolution in support of the Olympic Truce was sliced and diced down to the narrowest historical interpretation. That year, the resolution presented to the UN endorsed an Olympic Truce that would provide "safe passage" for athletes. The more powerful notion of a global cessation of hostilities was omitted. Romney was then head of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

What a different world it might be today if the spirit of the Olympic Truce had been embraced, not diminished, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as an antidote to the Bush administration's race to war in Iraq.

...A thousand and one reasons exist for why the Olympic Truce won't become a real instrument for waging peace in the 21st century.

But the Olympics are about global fraternity, surpassing limits, and perfecting the imperfect. So imagine how a scheduled, biannual, two-month long cessation of hostilities in global hotspots might provide time for negotiations, aid to the victims of conflict, and international intervention. Strides toward peace could be made that would be, both literally and figuratively, Olympian.