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Jewish World Review July 8, 2002 / 28 Tamuz 5762

Deroy Murdock

Deroy Murdock
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Consumer Reports

Olympic truce could give peace a chance -- ATHENS "Ready. Aim. Stop."

That's just one slogan Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis contemplates as he performs his job, perhaps the toughest among the Greeks organizing the 2004 summer games. He is promoting an "Olympic Truce," an appeal for peace among Earth's nations during the quadrennial sports competition.

"Olympic Truce means no war for 16 days during the Olympics, and hopefully no war beyond," Lambrinidis says. "It doesn't help much to stop fighting for two weeks, then go back to killing each other. Hopefully, this will happen in 2004 and beyond."

Lambrinidis sits in his office at the Zappeion, a symmetrical, column-filled exhibition hall just a shot put's throw from the Ancient Marble Stadium. Built for the first modern games in 1896, the Kallimarmaro will accommodate the finish line in 2004 for the Olympics' keystone track event. It will stretch 26.2 miles and begin - as when Athenian soldier Pheidippides ran it 2,492 years ago to announce the Persian Army's defeat - in a Greek town called Marathon.

The Olympic Truce is an even older idea. In the 8th Century, B.C., the ancient kings Ifitos, Kleosthenes and Lycourgos heeded the oracle at Delphi and launched an athletic festival at Olympia. From seven days before to seven days after the games, all hostilities among the parties stopped, allowing athletes, artists and fans to travel safely. This Sacred Truce or Ekecheiria lasted 12 centuries. Limited efforts to revive this tradition already have enjoyed some success.

During the 1994 Lillehammer, Norway winter games, the combatants in the Bosnian war accepted the International Olympic Committee's call for a one-day cease-fire. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) used the occasion to vaccinate some 10,000 Croat, Muslim and Serb children. "I don't know how many of them would have died otherwise," Lambrinidis says.

During the 2000 Sydney summer games, both Koreas marched in the opening ceremony beneath the same flag. This further reduced tensions that eased a month earlier when 100 families from the North and South were reunited after 50 years apart.

As birds chirp outside his window, a painting by Lydia Venieri on Lambrinidis' wall depicts a woman in a pink dress riding in a small sailboat called Peace while a seagull hovers nearby. It makes me wonder if the Olympic Truce could become an albatross around the IOC's collective neck. The IOC normally settles disputes among people wielding nothing more threatening than ice skates. Should it really engage in high-stakes diplomacy and conflict resolution?

It's hardly encouraging that the Olympic Truce Foundation's board includes Yasushi Akashi, a U.N. negotiator who did little more than chase his own tail around the Balkans while pursuing fruitless peace discussions in the mid-1990s. It finally took U.S. firepower to terminate Serbia's slaughter of its neighbors.

Still, opening such a window of opportunity for peace offers some promise, and is worthy for that reason alone.

"This is no panacea." Lambrinidis admits. "We don't have a magic wand." He believes, however, that "your best chance for truce is where both sides feel their fight has gone too far, but neither side can admit it for fear of looking weak or losing face. If an outside group like the IOC comes in, they can say, 'Well, if the Olympic movement wants us to stop fighting, let's do so.'"

Lambrinidis says 45 wars, many obscure, now embroil the planet. He would like to see participants in these conflicts carry the Olympic flame as it tours the world in 2004. A soldier from one side of a battle could carry the torch, for instance, then hand it to a fighter from the other side. Lambrinidis hopes to see the flame travel through strife-torn regions, provided that each leader respects the truce while the flame is in his territory. "You can't be running with the flame while you're afraid of getting shot in the back," Lambrinidis says.

Will this idea turn India and Pakistan into pals? Will it transform the Axis of Evil into the Alliance for Virtue? Probably not. But why not add the Olympic Truce to the peacemaker's tool box along with the Geneva conference table and the joint communique? As Stavros Lambrinidis says with appropriate humility: "We hope it works, and we hope it helps."

JWR contributor Deroy Murdock is a New York-based commentator and columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service. New York commentator. He recently visited Greece on a fact-finding mission sponsored by the American Journalism Foundation. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2001, Deroy Murdock