Torch that bears nothing but the truce

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The Independent Online

When our dramas and tragedies are suddenly overshadowed and utterly devalued by the real thing, we sporting folk have the choice of either going off into a corner and playing with ourselves or doing the decent thing and suspending activities until such time when it is proper to offer our diversions.

When our dramas and tragedies are suddenly overshadowed and utterly devalued by the real thing, we sporting folk have the choice of either going off into a corner and playing with ourselves or doing the decent thing and suspending activities until such time when it is proper to offer our diversions.

However, even when assailed by a horror of this unprecedented magnitude, we don't care to be reminded of our irrelevance or to have our sense of importance pulled abruptly from its roots, so we agonise over what to do.

The last thing we want to admit is that it doesn't really matter. What the hell do they think we are, a bunch of pastimes? The answer is yes, and a forlorn bunch at that. I was fully in agreement with Uefa when they postponed Wednesday's Champions' League programme and I believe it was extremely hasty of our authorities to think that yesterday's domestic sporting programme could take place without a sense of shame lasting longer than the minute's silence.

It might have been forgivable if the proceeds were to be forwarded to the orphans of the New York fire-fighters, but to play on regardless while the search for 5,000 bodies was still in its early stages struck me as callous. I am aware of the arguments put forward by the let's- carry-on-as-normal-and-show-'em-what-we're-made-of faction but, sadly, that attitude could be also construed as indifference by the unkind. Besides, I don't think the stiff upper lip plays well where the assailants come from.

It is not difficult to understand the urge to keep going when disaster strikes, because chickens have the same problem, but it ought not to be beyond us to honour the victims of this enormity – sad that it takes a calamity to remind us of the true meaning of that much-misused word – while they still lie entombed in that appalling debris.

None of this should be taken as an attempt to position the importance of sport to the periphery of our life. It is capable of having a major influence, but only in a proactive way. To imply that it has a role only as an escape from reality is to be ignorant of its powers.

Indeed, as we stand today in fearful awe of the aftermath of Manhattan, sport may offer one of the clearer roads to a better future. Ironically, the route comes by courtesy of the Olympics, which has spent much of the past century causing more than its fair share of dissent and disruption to the brotherhood of man.

Whatever emerges from the war against terrorism in which we are now engaged, there is an urgent need for a placating power to subdue the nasty crop of hostilities that were disfiguring the earth before the events of last Tuesday.

That may well come from a slight figure carrying a torch. The imperishable emblem of the Olympic Games carries sport's best hope of being able to play a genuine role in the quest for world peace.

When the Olympics goes back to Athens in 2004 it will be returning to its origins and, if the Greeks have any say in it, will be getting a good scrubbing in the ideals department. Part of the cleansing will involve the use of the Olympic torch to blaze a path of peace through the globe's most bitter war zones.

At the last count, there were more than 60 conflicts raging, mainly unnoticed, throughout the world. The Greeks plan to run the torch through each of them and, on its way, promote the idea of an Olympic Truce; that for the duration of the Olympics all should lay down their weapons. They hope thereby to sow the seed of the thought: if we can stop fighting for 16 days, maybe we can do it forever.

The details of the Olympic Torch relay, which countries it will traverse, who will carry it and what are the dangers, are being discussed now in Athens and will be announced at the end of the year. But you can depend on it happening, whatever the risks.

The Torch Relay is part of the process of "re-Greekifying the Olympics" to quote the words of Stavros Lambrinidis, the ambassador director of the Olympic Truce Centre whom I met in Athens recently. "The Olympic ideal that left here in 1896 is returning to us largely unrecognisable," he said.

That is putting it mildly. Two world wars, assorted depressions, boycotts, Cold War politics, drug clouds and a slavish dedication to the gods and devils of commercialism have so soured the purity of the original concept that it could be only partially cleansed even by the joyful success of the Sydney Games last year.

Now under new leadership, the International Olympic Committee are being encouraged to take full restorative advantage of being plugged into the mains of ancient Olympia. The Olympic Truce is central to that rediscovery, as it was not only one of the fundamentals of the Games, it was the original reason for them.

According to Greek mythology, Ifitos, king of one of the warring Greek nations, sought from the oracle at Delphi a way to stop the fighting that was devastating the country. He was advised to restore the sports contests in Olympia as a celebration of peace.

Ifitos thus established the Games in the sacred Greek tradition of ekecheiria (truce): "Throughout the duration of the Olympic Truce, from the seventh day prior to the opening of the Games to the seventh day following the closing, all conflicts ceased, allowing athletes, artists and spectators to travel to Olympia, participate in the Games and return to their homelands in safety."

It was observed for 12 centuries, which makes it the longest lasting peace accord in history. Far from observing ekecheiria, the modern Olympics have allowed conflict to continue under new guises – Hitler's propaganda Games of 1936 and the ideological battles between capitalism and Communism of more recent decades.

The first attempts to invoke the spirit of the truce were made by the IOC in 1992 and supported by the United Nations a year later. During the Winter Games in Nagano in 1998, the observance of the Truce in the Persian Gulf allowed the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Iraq.

But these attempts to use the Olympics as a force for good have yet to be conspicuously successful, which is why the Greek idea of taking the torch around the five continents to prepare the way for a truce represents a far more determined effort. The IOC and the Greek government have combined to create the Olympic Truce Foundation and to establish an administrative centre in Athens from where the global promotion of a culture of peace will be organised.

George Papandreou, foreign minister for the Greek government, has said that achieving a worldwide truce during the Athens Olympics would "constitute a small revolution in international affairs". The Greeks are even offering the site of ancient Olympia for opposing parties to meet and discuss their differences.

Many of the conflicts around the world have lasted so long that mediation has become a forgotten option. Stavros Lambrinidis stresses that an Olympic Truce can provide an opportunity that can be achieved in no other way.

"Breaking the cycle of violence for just a few days can make a tremendous contribution to improving relationships," he says.

It may well be a naïve proposition, a desperate hope, but we have seen what power the Olympics can have when mishandled – when channelled in the right direction it could be a most potent force for good. At this precise moment, there is an urgent need for some glimmer of a peaceful exit from the darkness. And there is no reason why our oldest sporting festival shouldn't provide it in a most constructive manner. That should be the message to sport this weekend – if you can't be of any practical help, get out of the bloody way.