War in Ukraine: Has the Olympic Movement reached its limit?

Lessons learned from the EOA Seminar Klaipeda

  • It is possible to promote peace through sport, but such efforts will only be effective in a wider context of political interventions beyond sport.
  • It is becoming apparent that the Olympic Movement, as a political actor in the current Ukrainian war, faces a dilemma of excluding two NOCs for breaking Olympic ideals exercised by their nation-state, yet risks violating its own principles that every eligible athlete has the right to participate in the Olympic Games.
  • National Olympic Academies share many similarities and also challenges in their daily work, and a regular exchange is valuable to support each other in achieving the same overall goal: spreading the Olympic idea.

Lithuanian Olympic Academy successfully hosted first EOA Seminar in Klaipeda

The picturesque Baltic city of Klaipeda in Lithuania marked the venue of the first EOA Seminar on August 24-26, 2022. This new event series offers a regional forum for the Academies to exchange their expertise and debate a current topic within the Olympic Movement. In this framework, 15 delegates from Germany over Slovakia to Estonia met at Klaipeda University under the seminar theme “The Olympic Movement for international understanding and peace”, hosted by the Lithuanian Olympic Academy.

The issue came to the fore with the current war of Russia in Ukraine, which, despite the suffering of Ukrainian society due to the cruelty of the war, has also caused massive damage to Ukrainian sport and led to Russia’s and Belarus’ suspension from the organised sport.

A mere 50 km from the Russian border, the international delegates and speakers were welcomed by Daina Gudzineviciute, President of the Lithuanian National Olympic Committee, Linas Obcarskas, Vice-Minister of Education, Science and Sports of the Republic of Lithuania and Vytautas Grubliauskas, Mayor of Klaipeda City.

EOA President Prof. Dr. Manfred Laemmer reminded the present NOAs of their task and duty in his opening speech: “The promotion of international understanding and peace, solidarity and cooperation is a central element of the Olympic idea and an obligation of the Olympic Charter, which forces us all to act: the IOC, the NOCs, the national and international sports federations and the scientific institutions and organisations of the Olympic Movement, first and foremost the National Olympic Academies and their continental associations and the International Olympic Academy. The Olympic Movement has become a political actor. We are all called upon to find answers and solutions to the new problems that have arisen with unprecedented intensity.”

© EOA/Simona Grazyte

The Olympic Movement as a “soft power” for international understanding and peace

Host and President of the Lithuanian Olympic Academy, Asta Sarkauskiene introduced the seminar participants to the topic by giving a short overview and referring to the current war in Ukraine.

Afterwards, the seminar topic was addressed in several lectures. The event was streamed online with numerous participants ranging from students and sports administrators to researchers. In the first lecture of the day, Prof. Dionyssis Gangas from the International Olympic Academy drew on ideas from his recently published and highly recommended book (“Olympic Movement and international politics: a confrontational coexistence over time”) and explained the role of the Olympic Movement as a soft power in international politics, providing numerous examples.

In the end, he derived his thoughts on the Ukraine war and concluded that the Olympic Movement does lack the power to prevent states from the brutality of a war of aggression. On the other hand, he points out that Russian and Belarusian athletes should not be blamed for the actions of their nations by being excluded from international competitions.

© EOA/Simona Grazyte

The second speaker Dr. Ansgar Molzberger from the German Sport University Cologne looked at Olympic history and its constant interaction with social, cultural and political entanglements. In his lecture, he took the audience back to the beginnings of the modern Olympic Games. The IOC has always been surrounded by national tendencies, and the German speaker gave examples of political influence and adaptation, tracing the path of the IOC up to the present day.

“Give peace a chance”

Due to personal circumstances, Prof. Dr. Mariia Bulatova was unable to attend the seminar. Laryssa Dotsenko from the Olympic Academy of Ukraine stepped in for her at short notice. Connected live from Kyiv, she first gave an online lecture on the history and modernity of the Olympic Truce. The second part of her presentation dealt with the Ukrainian sport and the terrible consequences of the war. The IOC and the International Sports Federations imposed sanctions on the Russian and Belarusian sport and showed solidarity with the Ukrainian sports community, as demonstrated by IOC President Thomas Bach’s visit to Kyiv (“Give peace a chance”), supported by a solidarity fund and help to more than 3,000 Ukrainian athletes.

Prof. Jim Parry, Charles University in Prague, crowned the morning with a captivating excursion into the philosophy of sport and examined the subject of whether sport really qualifies as a tool for peace, as it is so often proclaimed to be. He came to a clear position: of course, sport is not cure-all, and if sport programmes can be useful in peace-building, then they must be implemented as a part of a wider set of peace-building strategies.

Before lunch, the present NOA delegates spent time in small groups sharing their expertise on creating new activities in the academies.

Photos: © EOA/Simona Grazyte

What are the needs of the Ukrainian Olympic sport?

The afternoon part of the seminar kicked off with a presentation of a study exploring the main needs for Ukrainian Olympic sport in the current circumstances. Assoc. Prof. Dr. Olga Kuvaldina herself left Ukraine after the outbreak of war and is now well-integrated at Klaipeda University, where she is continuing her research.

Based on preliminary results of her most recent study, she identifies the most important needs for Ukrainian Olympic sport in terms of continuity of training of athletes, security, programmes, logistics and infrastructure.

As a methodology, she chose the Delphi study format, and conducted expert panel discussions in several rounds. This enabled the research team to come up with a helpful list that can channel international aid efforts to the relevant aspects.

What can the Olympic Movement achieve?

The seminar day peaked with a panel discussion on what the Olympic Movement can achieve in the war in Ukraine.

The Olympic movement faces the dilemma of seeing its values violated by the war. However, it cannot directly influence the states. By excluding the Russian and Belarusian athletes and the sports organisation, it is sending a signal for peace.

The question of justification for reacting to the current war in particular and not to other humanitarian issues lies in the definition of when a conflict is a war or when actual non-compliance with the Olympic values should be sanctioned. The IOC owes this very difficult definition to the public and should clarify it.

Prof. Jim Parry: “It’s a battle of meanings. And the IOC shall say what is a war and what sanctions it’s gonna take. The IOC has to step up and say what the political position is.”

However, there is a shift from neutrality with the purpose of protecting the Olympic Movement to taking a stance by means of “symbolic politics”, which should be considered as positive.

With regard to the Ukraine war, the Olympic Movement can only retreat to its sport-specific sanctions. However, these should be taken with great caution, always bearing in mind that other principles of the Olympic Charter shall remain in place.

“The seminar had a fantastic organisation and atmosphere.”

The event was rounded off by a gala dinner on the night prior to the seminar and a memorable sailing trip on the Curonian Lagoon on Friday. The delegates were delighted with the excellent hospitality of the Lithuanian colleagues.

Conference proceedings of the seminar will be published and made available on the website. The EOA will shortly be inviting to the next EOA Seminar. Just keep an eye on the website, on social media or subscribe to the EOA Deep Dive newsletter.

© EOA/Simona Grazyte

Read the article from sportas.info here (in Lithuanian):
Klaipėdoje Europos olimpinių akademijų seminarą surengę lietuviai aukštai užkėlė kartelę

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