Rarely are notions about values and ethics on such daily, living display as during the Olympic Games. At their best, the Olympics and other global sporting events unite and inspire individuals and nations, show vividly what excellence and achievement are about, and create and affirm dreams of a finer human community. With billions of people following them avidly, they abound in “teachable moments” (even if at times they display seamier sides of human behavior).
The Rio Olympics are generating an especially pointed set of discussions about ethics. The evils of doping, racism, and corruption are juxtaposed against virtues like self-sacrifice, team spirit, and fairness. Every event, every success, and every drawback (down to bright green diving pools and women’s dress) spark debates framed around ethical assumptions, whether they involve good versus evil or complex questions about tradeoffs and the insidious influence, for example, of pre-conceived notions that undermine good will towards fair play.
The Olympic values—friendship, respect, and excellence—the related Paralympic values of determination, inspiration, courage, and equality, and the tradition of the Olympic Truce all have ancient roots. All are deeply influenced by religious teachings, and they speak to different cultural traditions. Tested and refined over the years, they offer a framework with a striking, broad modern applicability. These eight values echo the basic goals for global human society set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were blessed by the United Nations in 2015. Each offers practical ideas and lessons for that broader context.Friendship can be a testing value in international affairs, as it is in sporting endeavors. Fierce competition challenges cooperation and teamwork, yet the positive merits of mutually supportive behavior are also on display. The focus on the refugee team at Rio is a fine example of how friendship can transcend deep divides.
Respect as an Olympic value underpins inclusion, vital in both sports and social action. Widening participation, to extend beyond elites, to include girls and women as respected, equal players, to honor the disabled, to include the disadvantaged, shows the results of longstanding efforts to build and to build on authentic respect.
Excellence can only be achieved with ambitious goals and slogging work to attain them. That means dealing with disappointment and learning from it to achieve more. Reaching for what can be achieved, setting the bar high, and moving there, whether it is speed for runners or cutting maternal mortality, is what excellence values.
Determination is related to sustainability and, more broadly still, to the will and grit required to achieve demanding goals.
Perhaps the most resounding value that sports can advance is the inspiration from human fulfillment. A central attraction of sport is the sheer beauty of seeing what a human being or team can achieve, whether it is swimming, a marathon, or a soccer team in action. All allow the human spirit to soar.
And that takes the courage that is essential to achievement.
Equality is about teamwork as a universal imperative. The essence of teamwork is to build on differences, and on different experience. Partnership and cooperation are vital.
The Olympic Truce by ancient tradition required that warring groups (even down to the family level) halt their conflicts to allow the games to proceed in peace. The United Nations General Assembly votes unanimously for an Olympic Truce before each Olympic Games. Even if this creates barely a ripple for today’s hideous conflicts, sporting events offer practical ways to work for peace and to manage the tensions that produce conflicts. Silencing guns and building peaceful and harmonious societies can benefit from such approaches and lessons.
In short, the values that underlie the Olympic spirit echo core values of social justice, in their central emphasis on integrity, fairness, and striving for higher and higher goals. Sports translates abstract values into practice in tangible and immediate ways. Sports conveys ideas that force us to confront what they mean. Sports metaphors express profound thoughts: the “level playing field” conveys fairness, teamwork evokes the essence of solidarity.
And a critical point: the Olympics highlight the potential of sports to engage and motivate young people in ways that go far beyond the spectacle of the games themselves. A young leader who was part of the Sport Summit series, which WFDD supports, put it this way: young people involved in sports programs are more likely to “get off their backsides and translate their ideas into action.”