Olympic Athletes in Beijing Took Peace into Their Own Hands
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt such an Olympic spirit from athletes at any Games”. This quote is from Thomas Bach. An expert on the subject, he won the gold medal in fencing in Montreal in 1976 and he has been a constant figure in the Olympic universe for almost half a century. As the current IOC President, he pronounced these words during a press conference three days before the end of the Beijing Games. No one in the room would of imagined contesting his statement.
As well as playing a starring role in competitions in the Beijing Games, athletes also brought their voice to a political debate where their leaders had previously struggled to speak the same language. Rather than talk about division and diplomatic boycott, as certain Heads of State and governments did, they preferred words of sharing and solidarity. They embraced the idea of peace through sport with freshness and spontaneity, without anyone asking them. On snow and ice, they proved that the values of sport and the Olympic Truce were not just empty words.
Examples popped up throughout the Games in all competition venues: in Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou. In freestyle skiing, the reigning Olympic champion from Ukraine – Oleksandr Abramenko – won his country’s first medal in the jumping event. He held back his tears on the podium as he received his silver medal. Then he turned to the third runner-up in the event, Ilia Burov, a competitor from the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) team. The two men hugged each other for a long time before congratulating each other. This image went around the world. “These medals are for our two countries, they make us proud,” explained Oleksandr Abramenko, linking his happiness to the success of his Russian opponent.
A few days earlier, a skeleton sledding competitor, also from the Ukraine, had already demonstrated the theme of peace through sport in a competition. At the bottom of the track after his descent, Vladyslav Heraskevych held up a sign to the press that he had prepared the day before in the athletes’ village. The sign displayed these simple words: “No war in Ukraine”. Questioned by the media, the Ukrainian later explained that he wanted to express his pacifist beliefs at the Olympic Games. He did not mention Russia and the tension between the two countries. He simply talked about peace. “Everywhere and for everyone”.
As another example, the Chinese Curling team didn’t immediately leave the ice after their defeat by the United States the day after the opening ceremony. Fan Suyuan and Ling Zhi walked towards their American rivals, Christopher Plys and Vicky Persinger, with a big smile on their faces and a dark wooden box in their hands. The box contained a set of commemorative pins featuring Bing Dwen Dwen, the official mascot. The same evening, the two Americans posted a photo of this gift on their Twitter account. With this comment: “A magnificent demonstration of sportsmanship and sharing on the part of our Chinese counterparts. We will remember it all our lives.”
Four years earlier at the PyeongChang Winter Games, the joint parade of the two Koreas gave the opening ceremony a historic dimension. Proof that sport can break down boundaries, at least for an evening. The athletes were simply actors in an event previously decided by diplomats. At the 2022 Beijing Games, they played the leading role: through their words, their actions, and their initiatives. Their humble but authentic manner brought the Olympic spirit to life.