The Olympic Truce Legacy: From Ancient Olympia to Pyeongchang and Beyond

North and South Korean athletes marching together at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Source: The New York Times.

Ancient Olympics and Olympic Truce

According to the Ancient Greek myth, the Ancient Olympic Games began in 776 B.C. when King Iphitos of Elis sought out the help of the Delphic Oracle on how to put a stop to the constant conflicts happening between the city-states. In response, the Oracle urged him to revive the Olympic Games as a means to achieving temporary peace. As the preparations for the Games started and messengers traveled to various city-states announcing the games, there was a reduction in the amount of time willingly devoted to bearing arms. Thus, the “Olympic Truce” or otherwise known as “Ekecheiria” was established, allowing athletes and spectators to safely attend the Games in Olympia every four years. The Olympic Truce was observed in full for almost 1200 years, making it the most enduring peace accord in history. 

However, the success of the Olympic Truce can be observed during Modern Olympic History as well. In 1993, the  first resolution on the observance of the Olympic Truce was adopted and since then, the UN General Assembly has expressed its support for the truce before each Olympics and Winter Olympics, with the resolution “Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal”. In modern times, until the end of the Cold War, sports and Olympism were victims of world politics, as the Games were postponed during the two World Wars or countries boycotted them for political reasons. For instance, the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics were boycotted by the United States to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, whereas the Soviet Union and its allies boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. However, after the end of the Cold War and specifically, in Lillehammer in 1994, the Olympic family and the UN proved that by coordinating with each other, they can actively contribute to securing a halt of hostilities, even if only for a short time. Thus, during the opening ceremony of the Lillehammer Winter games – and for 24 hours – a ceasefire was achieved throughout Yugoslavia, marking this as the first time the Olympic Truce was observed in the Olympics’ modern history. Even if the Olympic Truce was occurring in a small corner of the Earth, this was still a precious beginning with the UN renouncing the year 1994 as the “International year of Sport and Olympic Ideal”.

The Olympic Truce is crucial, as a ceasefire can be of the utmost importance in the world’s warzones, if only for a month, because it provides an opportunity for a number of actions: from the provision of humanitarian aid through the opening of requisite corridors to time for seeking a compromise formula. The main reasoning behind the Olympic truce is that through a temporary ceasefire, time is provided for both parties not just to sit at the negotiating table, but also to see the benefits of non-conflict. 

The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics was one the most recent successes in regards to Olympic Truce, as it provided an opportunity for the two Koreas to come to the negotiating table for talks after an uneasy hiatus. And it truly should be considered a success, since the case of the Korean Peninsula is complex and difficult, involving regional and international interest competition between big powers and even the risk of nuclear war. The 2018 Olympics certainly didn’t settle the differences of the two Koreas, but they did enable the two sides to come closer together, de-escalate tensions and be a witness to the beneficial consequences of peace as opposed to the risks involved in sustaining any potential for conflict. In addition, other several major achievements have been recorded since 2000, including North and South Korea marching under the same flag at the Sydney games, Iraq and Afghanistan participating in the Athens games despite being in a war, while in 2011 all 193 UN Member States unanimously supported the Resolution on Olympic Truce.

Olympic Truce and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

Tibetan activists at the International Olympic Committee headquarters. Source: Reuters.

However, the Olympic Truce has sparked some recent controversy. Since the Olympic Truce revival in 1993, Israel and North Korea have been rendered as the usual suspects who don’t sign the Olympic Truce. Nevertheless, the latest United Nations General Assembly on December 3rd 2021 passed the resolution without the support of 20 countries, with countries like the United States, India, Australia, Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom not signing the latest Olympic Truce. 

This move doesn’t come as a surprise, since the International Olympic Committee has been criticized for awarding the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games to China. Most of the governments that refrained from signing the resolution are even considering boycotting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. With the Olympics and Paralympics being, essentially, a celebration of peace and sports, countries are protesting against China’s record in relation to human rights violations, its governance in Hong Kong, Tibet and others, and its treatment of other minorities including Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The recent disappearance of the three-time Olympian athlete, Peng Shaui, due to her sexual assault accusations against China’s former vice-premier under Xi Jinping, Zhang Gaoli, has also turned everyone’s eyes on China.

Olympic Truce Legacy and Peace in the Korean Peninsula

South Korea and North Korea are technically still at war, as no peace accord was signed when fighting in the Korean War ended in 1953. Even though relations between the two remain fractious, after the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics steps towards peace in the Korean Peninsula were made. At the 2018 Winter Olympics, North and South Korea marched together in the Opening Ceremony. During the Games, a unified Korean team played in the women’s ice hockey tournament while a high-level delegation led by Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, visited Pyeongchang. 

Still, Gangwon-do is the only divided Province in the world, with its northern boundary being the Military Demarcation Line, which separates it from North Korea’s Kangwŏn Province. However, with the next edition of the Youth Olympic Games in 2024 taking place in Gangwon, the province is described as having a “great provincial desire for the unification of North and South Korea”, having the potential to improve inter-Korean relations. The significance of “Gangwon 2024” is great, as it is hoped that North Korea will take part, while there has even been a proposal to Pyongyang that North Korea become a co-host of the Games.

Pyeongchang Peace Forum 2022 (PPF).

In order to revive the idea of the Olympic Truce, in 2000, the Greek government in cooperation with the International Olympic Committee founded the International Olympic Truce Centre (IOTC). Its aim is to promote the necessity of honoring the Truce with a ceasefire lasting through the 16 days of the Olympic Games and the Paralympics that follow, as an effort to adapt the practice of the ancient truce to the demands of modern times. Thus, the IOTC organizes a variety of actions and events, in order to promote the Olympic Truce and Olympism on an international level. One such event is the Imagine Peace Camp, an international camp for young people around the world, which is co-organized with the Pyeongchang 2018 Legacy Foundation and promoted as an annual event in Pyeongchang, Gangwon-do. The Imagine Peace Youth Camp promotes Olympic Values such as Respect, Excellence and Friendship, aiming to include youth from all over the world; from more or less developed places, underprivileged communities, countries that are-or have recently been- in armed conflict. 

Most importantly, the Pyeongchang Peace Forum is an annual global meeting of peace-makers and peace-builders, which first took place in 2019 so as to advance the progress made at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. Indeed, the power of “peace” and “unity” through sport and the Olympic spirit has influenced the region greatly. Therefore, expectations for the Pyeongchang Peace Forum 2022, taking place in February 2022 are high. After all, eyes from around the globe are looking to Korea with great hope, recognizing that peace in the Korean Peninsula has the potential to influence peace globally.

Foteini Giannopoulou
About Foteini Giannopoulou 4 Articles
Foteini is currently pursuing a Master of Global Affairs & Policy at Yonsei University’s GSIS, as a 2020 Korean Government Scholarship recipient from Greece. Being a “global citizen”, she has participated in various educational seminars, international conferences, and summer schools in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Foteini has previous professional experience in social entrepreneurship for inclusive and sustainable development in Greece and Europe, while she has completed her internships at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Greece and the Hellenic Parliament. Academically, she is interested in international cooperation and especially bilateral relations between Asia and Europe, focusing on education, social entrepreneurship and sustainable development issues.