Rio Games as test of Olympics' purpose

Brazil is experiencing turmoil even as it prepares to host the 2016 Summer Games. Will it be able to fulfill one of the goals of the modern Olympics: promoting peace?

Men work near the 2016 Rio Olympics Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 11.

When Brazil was selected to host the 2016 Summer Games seven years ago, it was rising up in a ranking of countries on their level of peace. By last year, however, Brazil’s situation had deteriorated sharply, according to the annual Global Peace Index. Homicides and jailings have gone up while political instability and corruption scandals have raised the prospects for violence.

Now the Games in Rio, which run for two weeks in August, have become a test of whether the modern Olympics can fulfill one of its primary goals: bringing peace through the international competition of sports.

The Olympic organizers in Rio say they are ready for the athletes and spectators, despite local challenges in construction, pollution, and the Zika virus. The Games are forcing a social and political discipline in Brazil despite heavy costs, delays, and protests in the run-up to the mega-sports event.

Even after 120 years of the modern Olympics, the contests are still struggling to show they can help people and nations transcend differences and difficulties in order to reduce conflict. As sports have become globalized – the Olympics were first televised in 1964 – watching and playing sports have become one of the most common human activities. Yet, despite its competitive nature, sport is also seen as a peacemaker. “It has the power to unite people ... sport can create hope where once there was only despair,” said the late Nelson Mandela.

In recent years, the United Nations has revived the practice of the original Olympics by proclaiming seven days of peace before the start of the Games. In ancient Greece, such a truce was necessary between warring city-states to allow travel for athletes. The UN proclamation is just one many ways that international bodies try to use sports to encourage peace and development.

Yet the modern Olympics can also stoke intense nationalism, symbolized by flag waving and each government’s attempt to produce the best team of athletes (sometimes through doping). Hosting the Games is regarded as a lift for national prestige, despite the often-burdensome costs or a neglect of other, more basic priorities. The contests have also become too commercialized.

In a recent opinion piece, Paul Christesen, a Dartmouth College professor and expert on the ancient Games, proposed that the International Olympic Committee promote the pure joy of each sport by having athletes give up their national uniforms for identical Olympic jerseys. Other reforms have been proposed over the years, such as designating a permanent site for the Olympics or holding the individual sports in different cities.

Brazil’s descent just before hosting the Games should serve as a reminder on how sports should be used to bring people together, both within a nation as well as from around the globe, for a peaceful purpose. Sport is a proven way to promote humanity at its best. This year’s Olympics must be no different.

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