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High hoops

For Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympic Games more than a century ago, the Games were not just to be a sporting event but the focal point of a social movement that would make the world a better place. De Coubertin hoped that the embodied learning of sport would spur individual and social development, while international competitions and the networks that grew up around them would enable a critical mass of intercultural understanding that would serve as a brake on war. Sport was the means to the end. De Coubertin called his strategy of social change 'Olympism'.

Today the Olympic Movement proclaims that 'the practice of sport is a human right' and that everyone should have the possibility of participating in sport, 'without discrimination of any kind. ' Yet, beyond the ennobling rhetoric, how does the Olympic Movement pursue Olympism in the day-to-day of the thousands of events and organisations it coordinates today? What have been the most significant developments in the buildup to the 2012 Olympics in London? Sadly, most athletes, coaches and officials today barely understand Olympism. The means have replaced the ends, and winning medals and sponsorships has become the entire focus of their lives.

When I competed in the Olympics, scoreboards at every venue proclaimed De Coubertin's succinct slogan of experiential education, 'The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part;the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well. ' But I haven't seen those words on a scoreboard in decades.

And most Olympic education programmes focus on children, not athletes or coaches. Although sophisticated methodologies are now available for measuring social development, the IOC has never monitored the educational and intercultural outcomes of its activities. Yet it counts and publicises every medal won.

Besides, games organisers are mostly preoccupied with the monumental tasks of building facilities and conducting the competitions, not ensuring a lasting legacy for educational sport and physical activity.

Olympism is even more distant at other big events, like the World Championships. Most National Olympic Committees (NOCs) are no different;the Canadian Olympic Committee, for instance, tells athletes that they must 'Own the Podium'.
With such a preoccupation with winning, enhancing participation is also given short shrift. Yet I believe that the strategy and values of Olympism are as relevant as ever. With sport being such a highly visible and publicly affirming activity, the opportunity to participate must be available to all, every day - as a basic right of citizenship. But the 'inspiration' of Olympic champions alone is not enough to stimulate participation in sport. It requires careful planning, social investments, and sustained programming long after the Games have ended. That has rarely happened.

But the last few years have seen several encouraging steps. The experiment of Youth Olympic Games may well put Olympism back on the agenda. One of their welcome departures from the adult Games has been the requirement that athletes stay in the Athletes'Village for the entire duration of the Games, and spend at least one day learning about the aspirations of the Olympic Movement in shared cultural activities.

The most dramatic recent innovation is International Inspirations (II), the collaboration of the 2012 Organising Committee, the UK Government and the IOC to provide new opportunities in sport and physical activity for 12 million youth in 20 countries by the year 2014. India has been one of these countries, and since 2007, 'II' has worked with governments to train teachers and community coaches to engage children in physical education and sport.
The London Games will also be marked by two long overdue steps for gender equity. Women will compete in every sport at the Games, including the last holdout, boxing;and for the very first time every competing NOC will include at least one female competitor. This owes much to some deft diplomatic pressure over the last two decades.

On the other hand, it is extremely disappointing that the London organisers have cancelled Pride House, the open house for sexual minority athletes that was pioneered at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. It is further disappointing that the IOC continues to insist upon the scientifically bogus practice of 'gender identification testing' for women with atypical sexual characteristics. These prejudices contradict the Olympic Movement's promise of 'non discrimination' and its claim to 'celebrate diversity. '

Every Olympic Games is a multiple narrative, a kaleidoscope of athletic, environmental, social and political interventions in the host city and country, and in every one of the 205 participating national communities. Today, these interventions are primarily structured by the worldwide fascination with high performance sport and the economic and political interests organised around sport - not Olympism.

Yet even if Olympism has been muted within the Olympic Movement, it still holds eloquent promise for the possibilities of human liberation, especially in the emerging field of sport for development and peace, as represented by developments like International Inspirations.

The writer is a former dean of the University of Toronto and competed in the 1964 Olympics

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