The Myth of the Sacred Truce

12 February 2018, 1223 EST

Katie Couric, in a tweet last month about the Olympics , wrote: “I do think the Olympics is unique in that it transcends politics.” This view is pervasive in Couric’s formulation, but takes on a subtler tone in the argument that the Olympics is political only in circumstances of the “exceptional.” For example, writing for the Atlantic in 2012, Armin Rosen constructs a narrative of Olympic politics within the context of Cold War rivalries. For Rosen, the Olympics was not always apolitical: “the Olympics were once a particularly bright flashpoint in one of the Cold War era’s tensest geopolitical dramas.” This drama was the boycott of the games by twenty-eight African countries in protest of the New Zealand rugby team’s violation of the international athletic embargo on apartheid South Africa.

These takes on the Olympics are misguided on two fronts. First, it obscures the long political history of the Olympics. The idea of the “sacred truce”—a putting aside of politics during Olympic games for the purposes of friendly and fair athletic competition—is a myth. Second, this misunderstanding of the Olympic games is hazardous. It is more proof of what Carl Schmitt criticized as the death of the political: the increasing depoliticization of inherently political processes.

I suggest that a consideration of the Olympics as a political event, with political aims, cannot only help us understand the way that the Olympics functions as a site of international relations, but should also—from a normative angle—allow us to more broadly rethink exercise, fitness, and sport as a public activity. Following Arendt, this lack of understanding of things like sport-as-politics is indicative of a world where society has failed people; it “has lost its power to gather them together.”

The Myth of the Sacred Truce

The myth of the Olympic Truce dates back to practice in classical Greece, where the Olympic games were treated as a site of neutrality even amid war. However, in practice, this was often not the case. For instance, during the Peloponnesian War, Sparta was banned from competing altogether, because of its attack on Elean territory in 420 BCE.

And, in relation to the modern history of the games, politics has consistently left its stamp. Besides the 1976 boycott of the games mentioned by Rosen, the games in 1916, 1940, and 1944 were cancelled altogether due to the World Wars. The Nazi regime used the 1936 games as a propaganda tool; Hitler initial refused to let Jews participate at all, though he rescinded this after the threat of a massive boycott. 1972 witnessed a terror attack on the Munich games. The games themselves are mass spectacles aimed at demonstrating superiority, power, and prestige.

The 2018 Olympics is no different. The games have turned into a forum for diplomatic wrangling of North Korea, as well as a confrontation between divergent domestic political agendas on a world stage. Mike Pence’s attendance, for example, has sparked rebuke by Olympians like Adam Rippon, who have challenged his stance on gay rights.

It is hard to watch the Olympics, or to consider its history without thinking about the political function the games serve.

Depoliticization of Sport

The implications of this way of thinking, of challenging the “sacred truce” myth, are significant.

In the first place, the myth plays into a narrative about the way that institutions, norms, and identities can function in the context of a liberal world order to “depoliticize” international relations altogether. In the twentieth/twenty-first century liberal order, these institutions offer a respite from the destructive power politics of earlier eras, and instead reduces our realm of action to either (1) problems with technical solutions; or (2) those that are entirely removed from power politics [e.g., the Olympics]. It is fascinating, for example, that the idea of the “sacred truce” is not just a norm, but is also heavily institutionalized: UN Res 48/11 institutionalizes this in the context of a major international organization, and the Olympic Committee has established its own International Olympic Truce Foundation in order to better embed these principles.

In the second place, it should make us think more clearly about exercise and fitness as inherently political activities. Mark Grief, in a perceptive essay titled “Against Exercise,” argues that the depoliticization of exercise—the movement away from the model of “gymnasia” in the ancient world to the “health club”—contributes to the destruction of the public sphere altogether. He writes:

It is like a punishment for our liberation. The most onerous forms of necessity, the struggle for food, against disease, always by means of hard labor, have been overcome. It might have been naive to think the new human freedom would push us toward a society of public pursuits, like Periclean Athens, or of simple delight in what exists, as in Eden. But the true payoff of a society that chooses to make private freedoms and private leisures its main substance has been much more unexpected. This payoff is a set of forms of bodily self-regulation that drag the last vestiges of biological life into the light as a social attraction.”

The sacred truce thus serves an anti-political ideology on two levels. It is part-and-parcel of a larger liberal project to depoliticize international politics, while simultaneously operating to remove things like fitness out of the realm of the public and into the private. It takes what it means (literally) to live and exiling that experience entirely to the realm of the secret, the private, the voiceless—the headphoned member of a private club.

Rethinking the Olympics as a political spectacle is liberating. It demonstrates that international relations contains spaces for agonistic democracy, for public debate, and for negotiations of power and influence. However, it also shows how deeply public fitness and exercise are—how our bodies are inseparable from the process of politics.