As I watched the closing of the Olympic Games in Tokyo at home on my TV, it takes me back to 1992 when I had the honour of being at the Olympic Games in Barcelona where both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu were present to promote the Olympic Truce and the Olympic Spirit and where we all celebrated South Africa’s return to the Olympic Games after many years of absenteeism due to Apartheid.
It takes me back to August 2016, the 31st Olympic Games held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil – the last one before Covid, where millions of people could assemble and watch the best athletes in the world compete, among South Africa’s sensational Wayde van Niekerk and Mokgadi Caster Semenya, Luvo Manyonga and Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos, who made childhood dreams come true.
It takes me back even further to my research about the Olympic Games, to St Louis in 1904 where two black South African runners who were unknown to many, were the first Olympians to represent South Africa at an Olympic Games event.
It was the first worldwide Olympics held outside of Europe and the 1904 Olympics were also held as part of the World Trade Fair, a international fair held to attract international interest and investment where the two South Africans were employed.
Those two South Africans were Jan Mashiane and Len Taunyane, who both ran in the marathon with ordinary working shirts and knee-length trousers.
Mashiane had shoes and socks but his partner ran barefoot and were chased by a dog for some distance.
The two South Africans finished the marathon ninth and twelfth respectively and thus became the first black Africans to compete in the Olympics.
I think of two visionaries of the Olympic Games – Pierre de Coubertin and Nelson Mandela. In our field, the “sports field” many sports legends and stars enjoy universal popularity, however, few will be remembered for something bigger than a career in sports, and even fewer leave a true legacy by using sport as a tool for more than a medal, more than entertainment, but rather for development, education, peace and unity which last over decades and even centuries.
Pierre de Coubertin and Nelson Mandela were such visionaries. The one is considered the Father of the Modern Olympic Games, the other the Father of the Nation in South Africa.
De Coubertin had believed in the impact sport can have when he revived the Olympic Games and with them the idea of Olympic Truce and “world peace”.
Olympism was seen as a philosophy of life. This vision of an Olympic Truce and world peace has often been seen as utopian hyperbole, however, his intention was to set an example for international unity. Years later South Africa and Nelson Mandela showed the world what indeed is possible.
In the year of De Coubertin’s 150th birthday, in 2013 the world lost Nelson Mandela.
Madiba had been an inspiration in his life time and even through his passing, made people want to strive for what he had been passionate about and stood for – to contribute to his legacy for peaceful communities, a better society and a more caring and humane world.
He saw the potential of sport, the power sport can have and he consciously and actively contributed to sport playing a greater role than in any other country in promoting peace, social transformation and democracy.
A year later South Africa, as the only country from the global South, was elected International Chair for Sport and Peace of the United Nation’s International Working Group for Sport, Development and Peace.
This was followed by South Africa being elected as the Chair of the Intergovernmental Committee for Physical Education and Sport (CIGEPS which is comprised of expert representatives in the field of physical education and sport from 18 UNESCO Member States).
I reflect on the fact that South Africa, ironically and despite being such an enthusiastic sport nation, is also the only African country which does not have physical education as a subject in its schools.
Imagine the positive impact of sport if every child in the country would have the benefit of physical education at school, the opportunities for sport and youth development, values education, talent identification and ultimately participation in the Olympics.
However, due to the lack of physical education, the positive impact and opportunities of sport in South Africa and for South Africa is much more limited than in any other country.
In this vein, I reflect on the present looting and unrest in the country, I reflect on the latest devastating cricket testimonies of Paul Adams and others that highlight the discrimination and lack of transformation in Cricket SA and the question of what role sport can play in and for South Africa and its communities today.
We need a new dialogue, a dialogue which puts real emphasis on values and transformation, not on the word but on the mindset and actions towards transformation and we need sustainable outcomes.
We need a dialogues on how sport been deployed as a tool for strengthening social ties and networks, for promoting ideals of peace, solidarity, non-violence, tolerance, and justice in our communities.
We need a dialogue on sport’s impact and on what strategies can be used in advancing sport as a tool for development and peace.
We also need a dialogue on how we can promote values education, Olympism and physical education at school level to contribute to social development and social cohesion.
As we watched the Olympic Games with our South African athletes and youth around the world participating, with 205 NOCs and the IOC Refugee Team present, we can see that the Games, although they are very different than we imagined, can be a symbol of hope , a symbol of solidarity in trying times.
Stronger, higher faster , together is the motto of the Olympics, as proclaimed by President Bach. In extraordinary times we need extraordinary people like our Olympians and all the young Olympians from around the world who competed, promoting the Olympic values of respect, joy of effort, fair play and friendship together.
Can we do the same? Can we see the Olympic Games not as an event only but as way of life? Can we see the Olympic Games as a motivation, reminding us of the Olympic values and of our values and how we can all be stronger together as families, communities , society and as one world?
The feeling of togetherness is what we need to nurture cherish and promote. Can we rise up to this challenge ? Let’s take this Olympic effort on.
- Marion Keim is associate professor at the University of the Western Cape, Chairperson of the Foundation for Sport, Development and Peace and an advocate of the High Court. She works in the fields of social transformation, community and sport development, values education, leadership and peace building.