Perhaps the most famous incident of sports and truce comes from Christmas Eve, 1914, British and German soldiers called a truce to the battles of World War I. Meeting in no man’s land, they exchange gifts, repaired some of their defenses, and played a football game.

Sports harbor the potential for violence and political manipulation—recall images of stadiums erupting in smoke and fists, propaganda ploys (think Germany 1936), political violence (Munich, 1972), and the series of Cold War boycotts. But athletics can also remind its spectators that bodies so easily pierced by flaming metal can also be celebrated for their strength and skill. This year, as it has for each Olympics since 1993, the United Nations is drawing on the ancient Greek tradition to call for an Olympic truce.

It is not far-fetched. Soccer star Pele’s arrival in Nigeriain the depth of that country’s civil war was the occasion for a three day truce. When Nelson Mandela donned the jersey of the Springboks rugby team, with a single gesture he conquered a bastion of Apartheid values and symbolized the new South Africa. Throughout its civil war, Ivory Coast fielded a single football team, the Elephants, with players from both parts of the divided country, and when it competed in the 2006 African Cup of Nations and later that year in the World Cup, national support for the team helped impel a ceasefire and restart peace talks.

As the third essay in our series on sports and political violence, we offer three examples from the mixed record of peaceful overtures in sports.

The walking truce

At the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, a simple white flag with North and South Korea pictured as a single geographic unit introduced a group of 180 athletes and officials marching with a placard that read “Korea.” The actual border between the two states was still lined with barbed wire, but a thawing of relations led to cross-border goodwill gestures in areas of social, cultural, health, environment and sports. The two countries marched together in the opening and closing ceremonies again in 2004. By 2008, however, even this brief reprieve was no longer possible.

In 2012, the idea of the two countries appearing side by side seems as distant as ever, and a flag kerfuffle may add fuel to the fire. But perhaps Germany provides an example of the winding paths history can take. Germany’s post-World War II teams competed together in 1956, 1960, and 1964. While they used a compromise flag and national anthem in 1968, they competed as two teams. By 1972, the political separation was complete; Germany and East Germany appeared with separate flags, anthems, country names, and teams. However, as we well know, in 1990, German reunification meant that once again, there was only one team.

The playing truce

Cricket has provided the opening for interstate discussions between Pakistan and India frequently enough that it has earned its own term: “cricket diplomacy.” It seems the next round has begun: in July 2012, the two countries announced the resumption of Pakistan-India cricket ties. U.S. State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland applauded the move and stated: “We’re for cricket. We don’t understand it, but we like it.”  The record of political breakthroughs occurring when teams meet across the border is mixed: goodwill, sportsmanship, and maturity have created memorable moments, but cricket cannot carry the full political burden. For instance, when Pakistani President Musharraf ventured to India in April 2005 to watch a game between their two national teams, talks were held with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Coming after a series of failed summits, the leaders’ conversations were, as one analyst, C Raja Mohan, stated: “a game-change,” but he added an important caveat, “At least for a while.” Now, it seems the game—and the diplomacy—is ready for another try.

Searching for a historical truce

When Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 Berlin games, it whitewashed its anti-Semitic policies, even allowing one Jewish athlete, Helene Mayer, to represent Germany. Mayer won a silver medal in fencing, and she, as did all the German athletes, made the Nazi salute on the winner’s stand. While IOC president Avery Brundage did not find the salute offensive in 1936, he threatened to ban the entire U.S. team for the actions of two African-American athletes in 1968. Raising their fists in a sign of black empowerment, gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos provided one of the most iconic Olympic moments. They were joined on the platform by silver medalist, Australian Peter Norman, who also wore a human rights badge as a protest against Australia’s “white only” immigration policies.

Twenty-four years later, Cathy Freeman would become the first Australian Aboriginal to represent Australia at an Olympics in the 1992 Barcelona Games. Freeman recalls as a child that she watched while white girls received medals for a race she had won. Her later achievements would not be so cruelly received: when she competed at the 2000 Sydney Games, she not only lit the Olympic torch to begin the games, she won the gold in the 400 meter race.  In 2008 Australian PM Kevin Rudd issued a state apology to Aboriginals: “For the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”

An apology, like a sporting event, doesn’t wipe away history, but in this case it provided, as Dirk Moses writes, a possibility: “Indigenous people in Australia did not think that the apology simply reinforced old norms (i.e. neo-colonialism), but opened a space for those norms to be renegotiated into a now open future”(1). Likewise, a truce does not end a conflict, it offers temporary suspension.

And so, as the competitors enter the arena Friday night, we remember that sports do not transform conflict, diplomacy or historical injustice, but they can provide a moment of relief. Such moments are, by their very nature, fleeting—but perhaps this gives us even more reason to celebrate them.



1) A. Dirk Moses (2011): “Official apologies, reconciliation, and settler colonialism: Australian indigenous alterity and political agency,” Citizenship Studies, 15:02, 145-159

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