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Opinion: Ex-Olympic discus champ turns gaze to games' timeless spirit of truce

Olga Fikotova-Connolly (Photo courtesy of the author.)

I am writing in appreciation of the countless hours of thoughts and labor by the Tokyo Olympic committee and experts in every trade dedicated to organizing and staging the upcoming Olympic Games. The sweat of your hands and hearts will turn into healing rain, washing away doubts and discouragement. I also express gratitude to the United Nations General Assembly for displaying the United Nations' flag alongside the flag of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) -- a sign of the Olympic Truce. It is a perceptive and courageous decision, because today's world needs peaceful events as urgently as the ancient Peloponnesians in Greece did millennia ago.

    This photo taken by Olga Fikotova-Connolly shows Japanese schoolboys and girls welcoming the Olympian in 1963. The flags show the old Mainichi Shimbun logo, suggesting the company took part in organizing the event. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

    In the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, I represented the United States in the women's discus throw. The year before, during the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee's promotional program, I visited schools on Japan's main island of Honshu. The first time I was in Japan, I was curious about the ways of Japanese citizens, most of whom had never met a muscular woman like me in the USA Olympic uniform.

    Children in the primary grades were especially curious about me. At one school I was answering questions from kids and teachers with the help of an interpreter when a little girl grasped my hand, then my arm, then climbed up my body and pulled at my hair. "Your hair is not real, mine is!" she cried out while holding up a strand of hers and trying to interweave it with mine. I replied, "Mine is also real hair. We have the same hair, just a little different. We just look a little different." The interpreter spoke to her and to the teacher, and I nodded that all was fine and helped her to her feet, but she kept holding my hand during the rest of the visit.

    This photo shows Olga Fikotova-Connolly in a kimono during her visit to Japan in 1964. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

    The ancient Greek term "Ekecheiria" literally translates as "holding hands." From 776 B.C., Ekecheiria was a sacred policy, the cornerstone of the ancient Olympic Games organized by three rulers of city-states in ancient Greece after years of disruptive and destructive warring among one another. The monarchs Iphitos of Elis, Lycurgus of Sparta and Cleisthenes of Athens, upon consulting the deity Apollo, decided to forestall losses of lives, farmlands, commerce, and other essential things by creating a major sporting event for Peloponnese's champion athletes, and by making time for meetings among the regions' governments. The athletes were to compete for laurel wreaths and the political leaders were to settle grievances by negotiations, rather than wars. Ekecheiria was strictly enforced, and guaranteed safety during the events, in travel to and from the games, and at associated meetings.

    I myself sensed the immortality of Ekecheiria before the Tokyo 1964 Games, in the form of a schoolgirl's trustful grip on an Olympic stranger's hand.

    The ancient Olympic Games were held quadrennially for more than 1,200 years before being disbanded around the year 939 A.D. Similar peace pursuits in the centuries to follow did not endure. But toward the end of the 19th century, French historian Baron Pierre de Coubertin recognized the Olympic Games' timeless value in education. His tireless advocacy for restoration of the Olympics garnered supporters in enough countries to conduct the first modern Olympic Games in Greece in 1896 to impressive success. Ekecheiria went unmentioned in friction-laden Europe, but was personified by near-instant camaraderie among athletes from everywhere.

    Coubertin's study of measures to improve life in Greek communities probably raised expectations that sportsmanship could lead to an Olympic Truce -- and correctly so. The Truce comes naturally from a true understanding of what is or is not manageable by you and other competitors. And this is why during the sailing events, more than in any other sport, many near-winners sacrifice their victories to save the lives of other competitors whose ships have capsized. Going beyond sports as well, during activities at the Melbourne, Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich games, I learned that no matter what their language, people from everywhere are mainly concerned about survival, belonging, self-confidence and happiness. And all of these things are achievable through honest analysis if it is given respectful attention and time. The few weeks of the Olympic Truce may not seem like much, but when diligently acknowledged by educators and the media it will find soil for its fertile seedlings.

    By the 1992 Olympic Games, Ekecheiria had persuaded the IOC to allow champion athletes to compete under the Olympic flag as independents. In 1993 the IOC affirmed the Olympic Truce as the longest lasting peace accord in history. That action perfectly fitted the United Nations' own efforts, and in 1994 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution titled "Building a better world through sport and the Olympic ideal."

    The Olympic Truce breathed quietly during every Olympic Games. During preparations for the 2012 Olympics in London, a member of the British Parliament, Lord Michael Bates, walked 3,000 miles from Olympia, Greece, to London, England, promoting pursuits of national and international peacefulness. Before the 2016 Games, he promoted the Olympic Truce at meetings during a 2,000 mile walk from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro. Two years later, in 2018, the Truce's sacred influence shone through in the form of enlightened tranquility between the two Koreas at the PyeongChang Winter Games. There is no question that the builders of these now famed examples of the Truce deserve admiration.

    But, in honesty, the world of over 7 billion human beings needs more than mere admiration. Like the famed runners in exhausting competition - when Ron Clarke fell, rival John Landy went back to help him get up.

    That raises the question what you and I can do for the Truce so it will not remain merely a noble concept. It is materialized through our actions. It can become part of our mindsets, and though it may be violated at times, as we are not saints, still subconsciously it can play a part in planning everyday actions. Let us consider, what is sportsmanship? What is Ekecheiria?

    Someone asked me what efforts I have made. Well, my wedding to a great U.S. athlete, a great man, a great teacher was a festival of more than 20,000 people at a town square in Prague. Sixteen years later, our differing athletic and professional interests led to a divorce. But our dedication to peacefulness brought us to agree and trust that while the two of us parted, our kids and potentially new partners and their kids would hear from us only words of friendship and encouragement.

    The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Truce is being observed from July 16, 2021 (seven days before the opening of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad) to Sept. 12 (seven days after the closing of the Paralympic Games).

    During the the six decades from 1964, Japan managed to meet the demands of the Winter Games at Sapporo and Nagano, was tested by earthquakes, typhoons, meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant and faced the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, internet and television relays from Tokyo will enable people around the world to join hands as members of the family of humankind, wherever they are. Even the traditionally silent sumo wrestling stables could open their knowledge and training systems to visitors from across the globe.

    A call will arise for the construction of Olympic Peace Parks on every continent, renewing human kinship with the green Earth on which all biological life depends. Separately in Japan, folded paper cranes remind us as individuals to extend a hand toward reconciliation and friendship. Let these Olympic Games -- perhaps the most influential in history -- create peace within the hearts and minds of us all.

    (By Olga Fikotova-Connolly)

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    Olga Fikotova-Connolly competed in the discus throw at five Summer Olympic Games. She first represented Czechoslovakia at Melbourne 1956, where she won gold. There she met the U.S. hammer throw champion Harold Connolly, and their marriage brought her to the U.S. in 1957. As a member of the U.S. team, she took part in Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964 -- where she placed 12th -- Mexico City 1968 and Munich 1972. She now resides in Las Vegas, Nevada and works as a certified fitness trainer and freelance writer.

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