The Third Pillar of Olympism?

by | Aug 28, 2004 | POLITICS

High on the list of all-time greatest spins is surely the United Nations Environment Program’s justification for spotlighting its agenda at the 2004 Olympic Games. “Respect for nature was a feature of ancient Greek civilization,” UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said in early August. “In those early games, victors were crowned with an olive wreath. […]

High on the list of all-time greatest spins is surely the United Nations Environment Program’s justification for spotlighting its agenda at the 2004 Olympic Games.

“Respect for nature was a feature of ancient Greek civilization,” UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said in early August. “In those early games, victors were crowned with an olive wreath. The olive wreath remains as an Olympic symbol to this day, a reminder of the precious link between humankind and the natural environment that we must learn to better preserve and cherish.”

Sounds reasonable perhaps, until facts intrude to reveal that the truer significance of the olive, olive branch, olive wreath and olive oil has little to do with any direct concern for the environment. Rather, Greek mythology portrays the olive tree as a gift from the gods, later used in its various derivatives as representative of peace, wisdom and power — witness, the traditional crowning of champion athletes with the wreath, or kotynos, that has endured at the Olympic level to this day — or as a source of great economic and commercial value, especially the oil, aptly classified as “liquid gold” by Homer in The Odyssey.

That the United Nations would attempt to pass such a skewed and easily debunked view of history onto the people of the world leads to reservations that the international body is hiding something, and in this case, most likely a something that involves the furtherance of its own interpretations of what constitutes a proper global environment. Such suspicions are not imprudent: This simple mischaracterization of the olive wreath — a small point, at least on the surface — does instead represent step one of the United Nations’ pursuit of a longer plan, one that bodes poorly in terms of upholding the spirit of healthy competition and international goodwill upon which the Games were founded.

What’s occurred in the immediate is that UNEP and the Athens 2004 Olympic Organizing Committee signed a Memorandum of Understanding, a U.N. internal document that commits the games’ organizers to an anti-litter broadcast and brochure campaign. Were strategically-placed trash barrels and public relations’ efforts aimed at pressuring attendees to use these receptacles the sole UNEP influence at play here, then no cause for concern would or should exist because the prevailing environmental message would be one of common-sense: Throw away your trash. Clean up your mess. Respect the properties of others.

But the memorandum and message go far beyond the sensible. Following the official games, ATHOC will present an “Environmental Challenges and Achievements” report to UNEP, to be used as basis for determining the global body’s rules and regulations guiding future Olympic contests, “including assessments for the various venues,” according to an Aug. 10 U.N. press release.

The crux, as stated by Toepfer, is this.

“It is important that the 2004 games set the stage for a wider discussion on the comprehensive integration of environmental considerations in future games,” he said. “The games in Athens should spur efforts by other countries to do more to ensure that their games are organized in an environmentally friendly way so that the environment is indeed seen as the third pillar of Olympism.”

The seed for this “wider discussion” that likely leads to greater U.N. presence during the Olympic Games has definitely been sown, as UNEP has already signed an environmental Memorandum of Understanding mirroring the one with ATHOC with the Turin 2006 Olympic Winter Games Organizers, and has also contacted five hopeful hosts of future games, Moscow, Madrid, London, Paris and New York, to offer assistance “to strengthen the environmental component of your bid.” Ostensibly, this assistance could lead to U.N. control of which cities are granted the chance to host, and as such, which are allowed the economic benefits such selection brings.

Is this really the job of the United Nations, an organization formed on the principle of promoting world-wide peace, to decide?

UNEP’s overarching goals with respect to the Olympics, as stated in 1994 and 2003 — the former, with its creation of the Sport and Environment Program and the latter, with development of the Long-term Strategy for Sports and the Environment — are aimed at targeting the “billions of people across the world, especially young people” to “promote the development of environmentally friendly sports facilities and manufacturing of environmentally friendly sporting goods,” according to separate sections of the strategy report completed last year.

One question to ponder, of course, is whether American sporting good producers will ultimately feel any squeeze from UNEP, through loss of business due to perceived environmentally unfriendly manufacturing practices or with the associated costs involved to conform and acquiesce to global policies.

But really, that’s the minor concern at this juncture.

What should be of greater unease is where this long-winding path of U.N. influence over the Olympics will ultimately lead, and whether this oversight will result in politically-correct competitions with winners who boast, say, the cleanest fields rather than the fastest times.

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Cheryl K. Chumley is a columnist who writes for <a href="http://www.abetterearth.org/">www.abetterearth.org</a>.

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