Walking in pursuit of Olympic peace ideal

Updated: 2016-04-26 21:37

By Michael Bates(chinadaily.com.cn)

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Walking in pursuit of Olympic peace ideal

Michael Bates walks during the Walk for Truce campaign in Argentina, April 24, 2016. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

China has an impressive and growing Olympic pedigree. It hosted the hugely successful Beijing Olympic & Paralympic Games in 2008 and the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games in 2014 and will host the Winter Olympics in 2022.

What some may not know is that the purpose of the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece was not sport, but peace. They sought to introduce a mechanism whereby warriors from different city states could demonstrate their skills and attain glory in sporting competition rather than on the battlefield.

The mechanism for this audacious attempt for peace was the Olympic truce, a sacred period of time covering the Games to allow athletes, spectators and officials to travel to the Games in safety. That truce from the Ancient Olympics continues to this day. Since 1993, before each Olympic & Paralympic Games, the truce is declared before the United Nations and countries are invited to sign up to it and pledge to honour its commitment to observe a period of peace surrounding the Games. Most do. 180 countries signed the Olympic truce for Rio 2016 when it was proposed last year.

If you were unaware of this aspect of the Games then don't worry you are not alone. I hadn't heard of the Olympic truce either until 2006. Then I discovered this Ancient ideal and I felt it was so simple and yet so beautiful. For five years I campaigned to try and get other countries to honour their commitment under the Olympic truce, first for the 2008 Beijing Games and then for the London 2012 Games. I failed to persuade officials and political leaders that this was something that should not just be signed but should be honoured.

Then I changed the question from why won't countries who have signed the Olympic truce honor its precepts? Instead, I asked what I could do to honour the spirt of the Olympic truce. How could I be the change I was seeking in others? This change of question was to lead me on an incredible journey, the first of many. For the London 2012 Games, I decided to walk 4800km from Olympia, Greece to London in the spirit of the Truce.

Through this walk, which took ten months to complete, I was to meet the most important person in my life and partner in all future walks, Xuelin. Xuelin was a Chinese businesswomen living in London. We met by chance the day before I left for Olympia to begin my walk. She immediately captured and shared the vision for the Truce. When I arrived in Paris towards the end of the Walk on New Year's Eve 2012, I proposed to her under the Eiffel Tower. We were married six months later in the Houses of Parliament on the day the London 2012 Olympic Truce came into effect.

Since 2012 we have undertaken a number of other walks for peace through twenty different countries raising over RMB 2 million for charitable causes. Last year we walked with the support of the Red Cross from Beijing to Hangzhou. Originally the walk was to be from Beijing to Nanjing but when we reached Nanjing slightly ahead of target Xuelin asked me to walk on to Hangzhou. Madam Zhang of the Red Cross, our wonderful project director, later described that I had walked from Beijing to Nanjing for ‘peace' and from Nanjing to Hangzhou for ‘love'. This was very true.

Before we had realized it, the Rio 2016 Games were in front of us and a number of people were asking what we were going to do for the Olympic truce. Now I was in the House of Lords in the British Parliament and a senior minister in the Home Office. Xuelin, was doing extremely well in her new business of property development in London. Initially I began to make excuses, thinking I could use my position to urge other countries to live up to the obligations they had signed up to. But as in 2008 and 2012 few people were listening. These were dangerous times. The idea of a truce was a best naïve and at worst dangerous. I would respond that if that were so, why had they signed up to the Olympic truce resolution at the United Nations? It was a circular argument that got us nowhere.

In February this year, Xuelin and I sat down and agreed that if we were to make a difference for the Olympic truce for the Rio 2016 Games it would not be through urging others to respond but by taking action ourselves. We decided to undertake a walk from Buenos Aires, host city of the Youth Olympic Games in 2018, to Rio de Janeiro, host city for the Olympic & Paralympic Games. This would be a distance of 3000km and would take over four months to complete. In addition to raising awareness for the Olympic truce, we would seek to raise RMB 2 million for Unicef and their work around the world with children in danger.

To undertake the walk would mean leaving Parliament and also resigning my role as Minister of State in the Home Office. It would also mean Xuelin giving up her lucrative career at a critical stage for many projects. This was one of the most difficult decisions we have ever taken. But on April 6th, The International Day of Sport for Development & Peace, we took the first tentative steps on our Walk for Truce 2016 in Buenos Aries.

Almost as soon as we left Buenos Aries we faced problems of torrential rain which made walking slow and dangerous along busy roads. I walk alone but on all my walks Xuelin goes ahead to plan the way and stays behind to pay the bills. The rain meant that many camp sites were flooded and accommodation was in very short supply. In addition, I picked up a foot injury during the first week and I come under attack from mosquitos who clearly hadn't understood the Olympic truce. To be honest I am not particularly fit—I am 54 years old and overweight. My sons are amazed I can walk across the road never mind 30km along it in a day. I hadn't walked further than 18km in one day in my life before 2010.

At this moment we are already several days behind target and the problems of weather and health seem to be getting more challenging rather than easier. We still have another 2500 km to go. At our current pace I am not sure we will make it by the close of the Beijing 2022 Olympics, never mind Rio 2016. In this, we feel a humble kindred spirit with the athletes who will compete in the Games this year. They embark upon a dream of competing in the Games. The total cost of training and competing is guaranteed. Success is not guaranteed. For us the goal is to honour the original dream of the founding fathers of the Olympic Games back in 776BC: to see again in a unique way how sport can bring the world together, not in highlighting national and cultural identity which divides but our human identity which unites.

You can follow Lord Bates walk at www.walkfortruce.org