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Terrence Burns | When a game is more than a game

Terrence Burns

It’s no secret that the world feels like it’s careening out of control. Covid-19, economic disruption, and social upheaval are touching every corner of our planet. It’s a confusing and distressing time. We need each other more than ever. Yet, much of the world seems to be retreating to its respective corners.

I remember the Cold War and there is something in the air, a tinge of Cold War frost perhaps, that looms on the horizon. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Sport can be an antidote for today’s world. Before you roll your eyes, consider the following.

Many may not recall “Ping Pong Diplomacy”, an exchange of table tennis players between the United States and the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s.

At the 1971 Table Tennis World Championships in Nagoya Japan, American athlete Glenn Cowan missed the US team bus and boarded the Chinese team bus. Three-time world champion Zhuang Zedong bravely shook Cowan’s hand and gave him a gift – it was a risky move. The next day, Cowan gave Zhuang a red-white-and blue peace emblem T-shirt with the words “Let It Be.”

In April of that year, the US Table Tennis team was invited to play in China. In 1978, China began to open to the world. It started with a ping pong ball.

Once again, sport lowered walls of mistrust and opened windows of dialogue.

This isn’t a new concept. The Games have always been there for the world, especially after times of global strife.

The first Games after World War I were held in 1920 in Antwerp – intended to unify the world. Yet the local Belgian organizers (not the IOC) banned Hungary, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire because of their roles in WWI. In fact, Germany did not return to the Games until 1928.

The 1920 Games did however make a difference – they introduced the Olympic flag and symbol (the Olympic Rings for global unity), the release of doves for peace, and the first Athlete’s Oath.

After cancellation in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II, the Games returned to London in 1948. IOC member and Chairman of the 1948 Games Lord Burghley said, “At the end of the worldwide struggle in 1945, many institutions and associations were found to have withered and only the strongest had survived. How, many wondered, had the great Olympic Movement prospered?”

Because of their universal values and ideals, that’s how.

So, what can the Olympic Games provide the world today? More than you can imagine.

One of the most splendid (and difficult) accomplishments of the International Olympic Committee is its never-ending effort to keep the Games politically neutral. It is a key reason why the Games are so loved around the world.

Fair Play, Respect, Optimism…these values are the true currency of the Olympic Movement, and they are why the Games’ appeal remains universal since their founding in 776 BC.

It is also why political boycotts have never worked – just ask any athlete who missed the Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 Games. Nothing was achieved except broken Olympic dreams.

The IOC’s century-plus strategy has been to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

A big statement for sure, but what exactly does it mean? For starters, it doesn’t mean you take the Games only to places that look, sound, and think like you do.

The Olympic Movement’s greatest strength is its diversity – a powerful word that sadly, is often hijacked by politics.

So, when I read of today’s rise of xenophobia and nationalism, I despair. I think of Glenn Cowan and Zhuang Zedong in 1971, and how they helped reset the global stage with a simple game.

Here is the true secret of the Olympic Games: they belong to everyone because the human family is the Olympic family.

Over 200 Olympic teams, including the IOC Refugee Team, work together to create seventeen days of glorious sport; a celebration of respect for our common humanity.

At the Games, we rise together, we laugh together, we celebrate together, and sometimes we even cry together. And that’s the point: together, we are stronger.

The Olympic Games may be the last true place where we all belong.

And that is worth its weight in Olympic gold.

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