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Building community with a shared future for mankind well summarizes goal of Olympic Movement

GMW.cn | Updated: 2022-01-29 18:57

George Hirthler: A campaign communications strategist by training, a lead writer or senior communications strategist on many international Olympic bid campaigns, a leading expert on the life and times of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and the author of The Idealist, Coubertin Speak, etc.

Xiao Lianbing: Secretary-General of the Center for International Exchange, Cooperation and Communication, Guangming Daily

Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games is to further reinforce the idea that global events can be conducted in full safety

Xiao Lianbing: Dear Mr. George Hirthler, you have long been immersed in the Olympic Movement over the past 30 years. For now, COVID-19 has raged worldwide for more than a year. What is the impact of the pandemic on Olympic Games?

George Hirthler: The Modern Olympic Movement has faced numerous challenges to its mission and the global celebration of its Games over the last 125 years. Every student of Olympic history has heard a brief summary of the Olympic Movement’s triumph over these external threats, often in the form of a well-known proclamation that goes something like this: “The Olympic Games have survived two world wars, a Great Depression, political boycotts, terrorism, near bankruptcy, systematic doping and coverups by teams, federations, coaches and individuals, cheating by judges and bribery in bid-city campaigns.”

It is well known that the Olympic Games have been cancelled three times in modern history, once in 1916 during the catastrophe of World War I and again in 1940 and 1944 during World War II. But prior to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, the Games had never been postponed until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were finally celebrated a year later in 2021.

This pandemic rose to the level of an existential threat to the Olympic Games, calling into question their very existence, but the Movement and the Games survived. However, it took something of a superhuman effort to sustain them.

The pandemic provided a convenient platform for critics of the Olympic Movement—a growing chorus of a very vociferous cadre of “No Olympics” activists who oppose the Games primarily for economic reasons—and often use the media coverage created by the Games to generate visibility over other political issues in hosting nations. Many critics feared that holding the Tokyo Games would produce a super spreader event that would in effect worsen the pandemic all over the world—and called for the cancellation of the Games in Tokyo 2020.

Neither the Tokyo Organizing Committee nor the IOC had sufficient time to prepare the protocols that would guarantee the health and safety of the athletes and all participants. As a result, the Tokyo Games were postponed by one year. The subsequent development of effective vaccinations and the protocols helped create the confidence that the Games could be conducted in a closed environment that would protect the health and welfare of all participants. Tokyo and the IOC proved that global events could go forward without producing a grave threat to humanity—and that’s what they did.

We now know, scientifically, that the Tokyo organizers and the IOC created a “playbook” that protected all the populations impacted by the Games. The latest analyses—five months after the Games—demonstrates that covid infections in the broad Japanese population actually dropped during the Games, and that those few covid cases brought in by arriving athletes were effectively contained in the Olympic bubble and were controlled while the competition proceeded to unfold in its dramatic televised broadcasts that drew a global viewing and streaming audience of more than three billion people.

The Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games will undoubtedly further reinforce the idea that global events can be conducted in full safety. Taken together, Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 will stand as historic proof of the Olympic Movement’s ability to overcome every challenge and ensure that the benefits of the world’s greatest celebration of humanity are preserved for future generations.

Each bid city contributes in a tangible way to development of Olympic spirit

Xiao Lianbing: As a campaign communications strategist by training, you have contributed communications strategies to numerous international Olympic bid campaigns. What communications ideas have you offered to these cities and what are their roles in promoting the Olympic spirit?

George Hirthler: There are two parts to every city’s story: the how and the why. The how covers the technical side, and explains how the Games are going to be conducted in deep logistical detail. The why delivers a city’s emotional vision for the Games, describes the unique character of its culture and the celebration it will produce and embodies its hopes and dreams for strengthening the Olympic Movement globally and changing its own history in the process.

Each bid city contributes in a tangible way to the development of the Olympic spirit in its country and in the world. Those bid city contests produced some of the best storytelling and some of the best narratives about the power of the Olympic ideal in dozens of countries around the world. The public bidding competition brought a lot of talent to the Olympic movement.

Xiao Lianbing: You have worked as a lead-writer or senior communications strategist on ten international Olympic bid campaigns, including the winning campaign of Beijing 2008. What are the behind-scene stories of the Beijing 2008 campaign?

George Hirthler: The opportunity of a lifetime came as I had the chance to help Beijing tell its story for the 2008 Olympic Games.

Since there was so much political opposition around the world to the Beijing 2008 campaign, we created a communications strategy around the undeniable notion that “China is changing,” and we positioned the Olympic bid as an expression of China’s desire to reach out to the world and become more engaged in the community of nations. Our message was based on the idea that the Games would accelerate the changes already underway in China as the country built its economy into a marketing powerhouse linked by trade to the entire world.

However, it was the hopes of the Chinese people and the historic dimensions of placing the Games in the world’s largest nation that ultimately appealed to the IOC.

At the time, the 72-year-old He Zhenliang was China’s senior IOC member and he was highly revered by Olympic colleagues all over the world. He was our final speaker at our final presentation in Moscow on July 13, 2001. In his appeal to the voting members, he opened his presentation with the unforgettable value proposition of our bid. “My dear friends and colleagues,” he said, “no matter which decision you make today, you will make history, but one decision has the power to change history.” That simple counterpoint summarized the extraordinary historic opportunity of placing the Games in China for the first time. That afternoon, the IOC voted to award the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing.

And in 2008 as China hosted a brilliant cultural celebration of amazing athleticism, I was honored to see the city branded with the theme I had written for the Games, One World, One Dream. The historic dimensions of Beijing 2008 were symbolized on the field of play by two extraordinary athletes: the irrepressible Usain Bolt, who won the 100 and 200 meter sprints and went on to become the greatest sprinter in world history after repeating that feat in London 2012 and Rio 2016, and the unrivaled swimmer, Michael Phelps, who became the greatest single Olympian in history as he won eight gold medals and broke Mark Spitz’ 36 year-old-record from Munich 1972 and went on to win a total of 28 Olympic medals including 23 gold.

Had the IOC responded to the political opposition to Beijing’s candidacy and folded in the face of the withering criticisms of China opponents, Bolt, Phelps and thousands of other less celebrated athletes would have been denied their singular moments on that historic world stage.

Sport is a means to a greater end— building community with a shared future for mankind

Xiao Lianbing: The values that are shared by all humans emerge from the development of the times, so do the Olympic Games. The outbreak of the pandemic and climate change highlight the fact that humans share their destiny and shoulder common responsibilities. Will the concept of "building a community with a shared future for mankind" become universal values in the post-pandemic era?

George Hirthler: At the core of Olympism—the vision of the Olympic Movement—is a desire to unite all humanity in friendship and peace through sport. Through the rituals and symbolism of the Games and friendly competition on the world’s stage, the Olympic Movement strives to remind all of us, the people of every nation, that the things we have in common are much more powerful than the things that divide us. In that regard, the raison d’etre of the Olympic Movement—its reason for being—recognizes that we are a diverse community with a shared destiny.

In 1980, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain was elected as the seventh president of the IOC. Samaranch clearly understood the mission of the Olympic movement. In describing the work of the Olympic Movement overall, he said, "We pursue one ideal, that of bringing people together in peace, irrespective of race, religion and political convictions, for the benefit of mankind."

What I find so remarkable about that statement is that it doesn’t use the word sport to define the ultimate goal of the Olympic Movement. Yes, sports is the means, but from Coubertin’s first conception of the Games, sport has been a means to a greater end—and that end, as President Xi has expressed it, is the creation of “a community with a shared future for mankind.”

When I first got involved in the Olympic world, I remember reading the Olympic Charter which then stated something like this: The fundamental goal of the Olympic Movement is to place sport everywhere at the service of humanity in order to build a better, more peaceful world concerned with the preservation of human dignity. I found that quote inspiring then and it is still inspiring today.

To answer your question directly: It is my fervent hope that the Olympic Movement continues to grow and gain greater relevance as a platform of peace within the community of nations and in the perception of the people of every country. If it does, it will bring greater awareness to the fact that we are a global community with a shared destiny and the value of those institutions that unite and strengthen us is undeniable.

Xiao Lianbing: Can you please further explicate your understanding of the appeal of “building a community with a shared future for mankind”?

George Hirthler: From my perspective, that quote from President Xi is an appeal to find unity in our diversity. That’s the same appeal that Baron Pierre de Coubertin made in founding the modern Olympic Games—to find unity in our diversity and to meet each other on the field of play as an important step in building mutual respect between all nations regardless of cultural, religious, ethnic or political differences. President Xi has, in effect, summarized very well the mission of the Olympic Movement—to build a better world (through sport).

Across the course of his Olympic career, Pierre de Coubertin strove to make the Olympic Games universal. In his effort to promote sport everywhere, he wanted the doors of international Olympic competition open to everyone—and believed that his great mission only would be realized as more and more countries hosted the Games. That was the point he made in an interview recorded by the French journalist André Lang in 1936 about the next Olympics. In response to Lang’s claim that Olympism was dead, Coubertin defended the principle that the mission of the Olympic Movement was to cultivate sport in every country on earth. Coubertin wanted the IOC to remain politically neutral so that every nation could ultimately host the Games.

Olympic Games provide unique global platform for expression of human solidarity

Xiao Lianbing: Your novel, The Idealist, The Story of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was published in China in 2018 on the tenth anniversary of Beijing 2008, and your new book, Coubertin Speaks, a collection of quotes and commentaries on Coubertin’s writing, came out in a Chinese edition last year. What motivated you to write The Idealist and to publish commentaries on 365 quotes from Coubertin’s writings?

George Hirthler: In my view, Pierre de Coubertin is one of the history’s greatest forgotten heroes. And just as I believe the Olympic Movement holds great promise for the future of our world, I believe Pierre de Coubertin’s story—the story of the man who birthed this Movement and created the philosophical foundation and values on which it continues to operate today—can serve as a source of inspiration for people everywhere. In fact, one of the best ways to understand the true meaning and ultimate potential of the Olympic Movement, is to understand the vision of Pierre de Coubertin and his hopes for what the Olympic Games might become. As I began to understand his story, I felt compelled to find ways to share it with friends at first, with Olympic bids I was working on, and then with a broader audience, which is why I wrote The Idealist and then Coubertin Speaks.

When I was first hired to write Atlanta’s Olympic bid in 1989 and sent to Lausanne, Switzerland to study Olympic history and the basics of Olympic bidding, I discovered for the first time that the Olympic Games were part of a global movement designed to create a better world by using sport and global competition to unite humanity in a common bond of friendship and peace. That revelation stunned me—and then I discovered this incredible worldwide movement was founded and sustained through its early struggles by Pierre de Coubertin, who gave everything he had to make the Olympic Games a permanent part of the world’s calendar.

I was fascinated by the fact that the man created an event that was known and admired all over the world. My early life may explain why I found Coubertin’s story so important. I was born in 1947, barely two years after the end of World War II, and I was raised in the 1950s, an era in which the imminent threat of nuclear war was part of our daily consciousness.

The Vietnam War, which started just as I graduated from high school, brought the violence of military conflict into every American home for the first time during my life. As I was developing intellectually, I found myself opposed to that war and became an anti-war advocate, marching in protests against the U.S. policy of aggression in Southeast Asia. The cause of peace became for me a lifelong passion, an idealistic dream that I’ve always believed our world needs.

So when I encountered Pierre de Coubertin for the first time and realized he had harnessed global sport for a peaceful mission, I felt as if I had discovered a new purpose in life at the age of 40. I felt compelled then to find ways to share his story and his philosophy and The Idealist, which took four and a half years to write, and then Coubertin Speaks, are two products of that newfound purpose for peace.

Xiao Lianbing: What is your interpretation of Olympic Games and its spirit?

George Hirthler: In our troubled times, the Olympic Games and the Olympic Movement that sustains them are a unique global platform for the expression of human solidarity. The Olympic spirit is reflected in the infectious that people from every nation feel when they see the world’s best young athletes competing in a peaceful competition to bring honor to their countries.

While many people may not recognize the philosophical value of the sport embodied in the competition, they do recognize the value of discovering—along with everyone else—the answer to the question about who is the best in the world at each sport.

Is citius, altius, fortius really important to our world? Is it important for us to know who is really fastest at 100 meters, who can leap the highest over the bar, who can lift the greatest weight over his or her head?

If the audience were the only measure, the answer would be a resounding global yes. The Games and the questions they raise about human performance matter greatly to a world faced with bad news and division every day.

But there’s someone else even more important than the massive global audience that watches the Games. Not the sportswriters or journalists or broadcasters who cover the events, not the sponsors who pay billions to market an association with the brands, but the athletes themselves, those who rise in every generation with the verve and determination to test themselves against the best the world has to offer and prove, to themselves and ultimately, to their families, that they are the best in the world.

It is their achievements that draw the global audience and evoke the Olympic spirit in millions of hearts during the celebration of the Games.

Role of sport is always to build bridges, never walls

Xiao Lianbing: Some western politicians seek to politicize the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympic Games under the pretext of defending human rights. How do you see this in their reaction to the Winter Olympic Games?

George Hirthler: The Olympic Games are not only the world’s greatest sporting event, they are its greatest media event. As noted, approximately half the world’s population—more than three billion people—watch a portion of every edition of the Olympic Games. This means that the Games are an extremely tempting political platform for all manner.

For those of us in the Olympic Movement, the important thing, as Coubertin said, is to remain politically neutral and support the Games in any and every host country. This point has been made forcefully multiple times by the current IOC president.

Two months after he was elected president of the IOC in Buenos Aires in September of 2013, Thomas Bach addressed the United Nations and spoke on the need for all countries to understand the role that sport can play in “building a better, more peaceful world.”

“… it must always be clear in the relationship between sport and politics that the role of sport is always to build bridges. It is never to build walls. Sport stands for dialogue and understanding which transcend all differences,” he said, “Sport, and the Olympic Movement especially, understands the global diversity of cultures, societies and life designs as a source of richness. We never accuse or exclude anyone. For this reason, we oppose boycotts of any kind. Boycotts are a fundamental contradiction to the spirit of sport, depriving it of the means to work for peace, mutual understanding and solidarity.”

Xiao Lianbing: The IOC added 'Together' to official Olympics motto at the 138th session in July this year. Why did the IOC revise Olympic motto?

George Hirthler: The pandemic forced literally every entity where human beings interact to re-evaluate the way they operate.

Since becoming president, Thomas Bach has often spoke of the need for greater solidarity in our world and certainly among the members of the Olympic Family. And so, following the theme of the Stronger Together promotional campaign the IOC mounted several years ago, I was not surprised to see the addition of the word together added to faster, higher, stronger—together. In the original Latin, the addition of the word unitas conveys the sense of togetherness well citius, altius, fortius—unitas.

Xiao Lianbing: How do you understand the slogan for Beijing Winter Olympic Games “Together for a Shared Future”?

George Hirthler: Given the context of the pandemic, I think the Beijing 2022 slogan is relevant and meaningful in immediate terms as an event theme, but also important as a long-term vision for both the Olympic Movement and our world. It strikes me that central idea behind this slogan, its thematic vision, is essentially a call for human solidarity, an appeal for recognition of the fact that we are all connected through the common experience of life on earth. With its focus on our shared future, the message of Beijing 2022 puts forth the idea that in coming together for the Games, we are, in fact, strengthening the ties that bind us across all the boundaries that divide us in our national, political, religious and ethnic pursuits.

It is an optimistic theme that aligns well with the mission and full promise of the Olympic Movement to unite all humanity. The slogan’s emphasis on the word together is also a direct response to the IOC’s revised slogan for the Olympic Movement—Faster, Higher, Stronger, Together. There is hope in the shared vision of the Olympic Movement and China in this regard.

Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are to make dreams of winter athletes possible

Xiao Lianbing: Do you have any expectations for the Beijing Winter Olympic Games?

George Hirthler: In fighting off the threats of the pandemic and fulfilling its promise to the global sports community and the Olympic Movement, China will provide a great service to all humanity. For the last four years, Beijing’s incredible efforts to build its winter sports infrastructure is about to make dreams of young winter athletes all over the world possible.

Personally, I look forward with great anticipation to following the Games on TV, on my laptop and on my iPhone. The venues look beautiful and the whole plan between Beijing and the mountains look wonderful. As an Olympic sports fan—and an American, of course, I will be closely following Mikaela Shiffrin’s attempts to set a number of historic skiing records in Beijing. Shiffrin, who is only 26 and is already one of the greatest skiers in history, is planning to ski in five different events in Beijing—the slalom, the giant slalom, the super-G, the downhill and the combined.

And that’s a story the world will be fixated on—and the story that will be remembered for decades as one of the defining moments of Beijing 2022, long after the diplomatic boycotts are forgotten.

From my perspective, the entire world is too engaged in militarism and that’s one reason why I am a wholehearted proponent of the Olympic Movement. We’re a world divided by our differences, national, religious, ethnic, ideological, political, etcetera, but all of those divisions can be tolerated as long as we are engaged in dialogue. War is the worst kind of division; it is the end of dialogue. At this stage in the development of human civilization, I believe the leaders of every nation should be able to find common ground for dialogue and avoid the tragedy of conflict.

I hope that the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games serve the purpose of drawing our world closer together in human solidarity and contribute to the process of building a better, more peaceful world.

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