A tale of togetherness

Then, in 1980, to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, American President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the Moscow Games.

A tale of togetherness

(Representational Image: iStock)

Is the addition of a new word in the Olympics motto the greatest legacy of the pandemic-hit Tokyo Games? Upon the creation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894 in Paris, Pierre de Coubertin proposed “Citius, Altius, Fortius” which is Latin for “faster, higher, stronger” as the Olympic motto. Coubertin borrowed it from his friend Henri Didon, a Dominican priest who was also an athletics enthusiast.

In fact, Coubertin believed: “These three words represent a programme of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible.” The motto, however, was introduced at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. In 2021, the IOC approved the addition of a new word to the Olympic motto. The word ‘Communiter’, Latin for ‘together’, comes after a hyphen is added to the earlier motto.

The proposal to include the word was made by IOC President Thomas Bach, which was endorsed by the IOC’s Executive Board in April. “Solidarity is at the heart of everything we do. Solidarity fuels our mission to make the world a better place through sport. Because we can only go faster, we can only aim higher, we can only become stronger, if we stand together – in solidarity,” Bach said.


The IOC certainly needed to emphasise ‘togetherness’ with added vigour as the global body was desperate to ensure that the Olympics take place this year despite the uncertainty around Covid-19 and strong resistance among the Japanese people against holding the Games amid such a pandemic. This is, however, not the first time that the IOC is promoting togetherness.

In September 2020, in an address given to mark the International Day of Peace, Bach said: “The Olympic Games today are the only event in our world which manages to really bring the entire world together.” In 2016 also, in the backdrop of the Rio Olympics, the IOC launched its global promotional campaign titled “Together we can change the world” to communicate the Olympic Movement’s vision of building a better world through sport.

It coincided with the Olympic Flame lighting ceremony for the Rio Games, at which the IOC President said: “Like no other human activity, sport is about bringing people together in the spirit of friendship and respect… By coming together in unity to celebrate the rich diversity of our shared humanity, the Olympic Games give us all hope that a better world is possible. Together, we can change the world.”

The pandemic-hit Tokyo 2020 Games apparently had at least one fairy-tale moment. When two Olympic high jumpers – Qatar’s Mutaz-Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi – decided they both deserved the gold medal, it was much applauded in the international media. Well, they didn’t do it until both of them failed thrice to clear 2.39 meters. Barshim then asked if they could share

the gold medal instead of a jump-off to decide the winner. The officials agreed. The follow-up electric celebration – the two athletes clasping hands and whooping for joy, Tamberi leaping into Barshim’s arms, belly-flopping onto the hard track, rolling around a few times, and screaming – would certainly become a part of Olympics folklore. “This is a dream come true. It is the true spirit, the sportsman spirit, and we are here delivering this message,” Barshim said.

However, it was apparently a win-win situation for both Barshim and Tamberi. Whether or not this is exactly an example of ‘togetherness’, the media (and the IOC also) always need such stories. Exactly 125 years after the first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens, the Tokyo Olympics, delayed by a year amid the worldravaging pandemic, is one of the most unwanted Olympics in history and the first-ever summer Olympics without spectators.

The Olympics have created a platform for unity and togetherness in the past. It brought the two Koreas together under a unified flag at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, for example. Earlier, a historic moment was created at the 2000 Sydney Games when the North Korean and South Korean teams marched as one at the opening ceremony holding the “the flag of reunification”.

These gestures, at least, are no less important. And only the Olympics could offer the opportunities to create such magical moments. In an op-ed piece in ‘Gulf News’, Fawaz Turki discussed the issue of togetherness in the Olympics and perceived that the Olympics Games enact core values inherent in our common humanity of fair play on a public stage. Let’s take some examples.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics is marked as the success story of Jesse Owens, a Black American sprinter. Owens also won gold in the long jump event in which a German athlete, Carl Ludwig Long, finished second. Long congratulated Owens and they both walked, arm-in-arm, to collect their medals. And this happened in Hitler’s Germany! “You can melt all the gold in the medals I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the twenty-four carat friendship that I felt for Long at that moment,” Owens said later.

However, to be honest, the modern Olympics have never been consistently politics-neutral. The 1920 Antwerp Olympics, for example, was looked upon as a reconciliation from the shock of World War I – marked as ‘Games Reborn’. However, Germany and its wartime allies didn’t compete, nor did Bolshevik-controlled Russia. In fact, they weren’t invited – Germany was blamed for the outbreak of the World War I.

Figure skating was a part of the Summer Olympics before the Winter Games started in 1924, and one Swedish figure skater was reportedly forbidden from performing to German music in the 1920 Antwerp Games. Then, in 1980, to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, American President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the Moscow Games. And the Soviet Union, along with its Communist allies, reciprocated in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Even in Tokyo in 2021, with a revised Olympics motto – officially enriched with ‘togetherness’ – the world witnessed the Algerian judoka Feith Nourine opting to withdraw from the Olympics as he had a possible second-round showdown against Israeli Tohar Butbul in the men’s 73kg division. Speaking to an Algerian television station, Nourine said his political support for the Palestinian cause made it impossible for him to compete against an Israeli.

The present call for ‘togetherness’ is perhaps to enable a muchneeded opportunity for the world to come together to fight against an invisible enemy – a deadly virus. However, the motto – togetherness – can reach much beyond that. For example, the culture of releasing doves was introduced at the pandemic-and-war-hit Antwerp Olympics exactly a century ago.

Although releasing doves is widely seen as a symbol of peace, the Belgian sports historian Roland Renson said: “They released doves, although these were not necessarily doves of peace, because these were doves which had served in the war and they were released by military men.” Thus, although it still has miles to go, the Olympics is an ode to global togetherness, for sure. An attempt that has mostly been successful. Not just now, but from the very beginning – despite the occasional dark spots. Now, the Olympics have officially embraced the sentiment in the motto.

(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)