Seoul Peace Prize

Home > Seoul Peace Prize > Laureates of the Seoul Peace Prize > Laureate 2004

I wish to express heartfelt thanks for the honor I receive today. I value above all the fact that I have received this award in a country that my forebears had little contact with, just as your ancestors are unlikely to have known much about the existence of my country. The twentieth century changed everything, however. The march of civilization brought us all together. No one can say any longer that there are things on this Earth that are too far away for us to bother about. On the contrary. What happens nowadays anywhere on our planet affects us all. That is how I interpret not only of the award I have received but also the inspiration behind it. And I am sure that you, in particular, understand me because your country's path to democracy, prosperity and national self-awareness has been hemmed about - as in the case of the Czechs - with conflicts and loss of freedom. Hence its achievements are all the more admirable.
  The prestigious Seoul Peace Prize was established as a reminder of the unforgettable 1988 Olympic Games. So permit me to reflect on some of the implications that strike someone who grew up in a totalitarian political regime and had the good fortune to live to see its demise and the establishment of democracy.
  Over many centuries, Europe exported throughout the world all sorts of ideas, opinions and spiritual currents and frequently imposed them on the rest of the world by force. Some of them were very sinister, or at least ambiguous, such as Communism, and the Europeans cannot be particularly proud of them. But one of the good examples was the idea of the Olympic Games.
  I regard the modern Olympic Games as the embodiment of a profoundly humanistic ideal, in the name of which the original idea was resurrected over one hundred years ago. It was at a time when Europe was making preparation - still covertly - for two fatal military conflicts that soon extended to other continents and endangered life throughout most of the world. The idea of peaceful coexistence respecting human dignity, as we read in the Olympic Charter, emerged at a time when political and power relations in the world did not yet presage any fundamental geopolitical and social changes. However, proof that it was an unusual and particularly sensitive time, is the fact, for instance, that at around the same period the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics emerged out of Newtonian mechanics, which were previously regarded as an immutable constant. I mention this parallel because that entire intellectual ferment, of which the Olympic idea was part, transformed our view of the world. We encounter echoes of it in contexts that we are unaware of in everyday life. However, after that long and painful century, all top-performance sports are marked by that genetic input and Olympic medals are rightly valued most highly of all.
  What was new about the idea of the modern Olympics?
  First and foremost probably the fact that individual achievement, excellence and human determination were formulated afresh as part of the universal ideal of humanity. When viewed in a timeless sense it expressed a universally acceptable minimum of human coexistence on this planet. During the twentieth century, states on behalf of which athletes competed were created and abolished, disciplines and sporting fashions were constantly changing, and materials and equipment were improving all the time, but the core value, which survived "from Athens to Athens" remained unchanged. It is the ideal of harmony, freedom and responsibility.
  It is said that politics has no place in sport, but I don't believe this to be the case, nor can it be. Politics, albeit covertly, has been present in the Olympic idea from the very outset. After all, Baron Pierre de Coubertin would not have needed to talk about harmony, solidarity and human dignity had they not been at odds with the reality as he experienced it. The very need for such a definition testifies to a profound reflection on what was happening in society.
  As you undoubtedly realize, I am not referring to politics in terms of the an individual's narrowly restricted career, but rather of his concern for public affairs, his interest and participation in them, the web of diverse relationships, in which his will confronts the will of countless others. These relationships and responsibility for them cannot be cast off by politicians, businessmen, artists, craftsmen or even athletes. Isolating one part of human activity from the activity of others is an illusion; it was an illusion in Coubertin's day and it is particularly true in today's globally interconnected world. So sport like every human activity reflects all developments in civilization and the current political scene. For good and for ill.
  In many of my texts I dealt with the phenomenon of lies in the totalitarian state. At that time I came to the conclusion that everyone was both a victim of lying and a liar at the same time. The expression "living in truth" came to be associated with the process of escaping that vicious circle. What do I mean in this context?
  Totalitarian regimes are based on the repressive control of society by a narrow stratum of the privileged and the basis of the relationship is the accepted lie. The first to be persecuted tend to be intellectuals and clergy, who are rightly assumed by the regime to be most capable of discerning, persuading and warning. In periods of unfreedom, sport easily become a part of official propaganda and is misused for the purpose of ideological ego-boosting and bombastic shows of strength. At the same time the ruling establishments are at pains to emphasize the "purity of sport", by which they mean its alienation from the social context. This gives rise to the paradoxical situation in which on the one hand athletic achievements are politicized - i.e. interpreted in the light of official doctrine - and on the other, are deliberately depoliticized - run, jump and fight, but don't give thought to anything else. I regard this as one aspect of the accepted lie.
  The totalitarian system offers athletes all the conveniences it is capable of offering and in return demands the opportunity to interpret individual achievement as essentially the product of the system and ideology. Athletes are presented as an elite so closely connected with the regime that without it they would not be capable of any achievements at all. Individual will power is thus recast into an alloy whose composition is precisely specified by a recipe of the regime, which has even pre-determined the shape of the mould it is to be poured into. Any deviation, any assertion of individuality, any stepping out of line is punished.
  In practice it might follow the following pattern: after entering primary school a young talented athlete is picked for an athletic team. He plugs away under the direction of a trainer for an entire year. At a time when his peers are having fun and games he is subject to a strenuous training routine and his will is focused. He spends his entire adolescence exercising his body and the appropriate techniques. He sacrifices everything to his goal, and removes from his life everything but this goal. His enthusiasm and achievements are admirable and we all look on in amazement at the accomplishments this young man is capable of. He is a symbol of self-control, self-surpassment and determination. All admire him, and rightly so.
  But then the individual athletic achievement - like everything in conditions of unfreedom - is stolen and interpreted as a victory for the official political line. The athlete who sweated for years is parasited on by the regime, which declares that were it not for the conditions that only it could provide he would be a nobody, and it demands that his achievement be used to laud the official doctrine. Moreover this adoration must be public, or he will be excommunicated and his lifelong drudgery come to naught.
  Let me be clearly understood. I'm not trying to say that athletes should not compete for their countries or wear their national colors with pride. On the contrary. However, the criteria must be free and dictated by sport, not by directive and ideology. The Olympic Charter clearly states that it is competition among athletes not among states or political regimes. Athletes are not responsible for the current policies of their countries and if they were to rely solely on the commonsense of the politicians they would probably never compete at all. However, they should not allow themselves to be manipulated into a situation in which their artistry and determination are presented by the totalitarian state as the result of politics, while their achievements are depoliticized under the guise of the purity of sport. After all, the Olympic idea is not one of achievement regardless of context, but instead it regards the preparation for that achievement - the self-control, self-discipline, self-surpassment and strengthening of the will - as a means to a life of dignity and responsibility. Sports and athletics do not exist outside of time and space but form part of a specific social situation. And the greater the renown that athletes achieve, the greater their responsibility for the state of affairs.
  There has been much debate in the past about amateur and professional sport. I think it is good that the boundaries of amateurism and professionalism have been surmounted to a great extent. I vividly recall another of those shared lies. In Czechoslovakia in those days there were many excellent athletes who deluded the phenomenon of amateurism for years and were deluded by it in turn, along with society as a whole. In the end nobody at all believed in it, although Communist propaganda had decided that the purity of sport - i.e. its depoliticization - had its roots precisely in amateurism. All this meant was that all athletes were bogusly employed somewhere, but were never seen in their jobs for months on end. Instead they were training as regularly and strenuously as the professionals. The pretence was that they were paid for the job they did not perform and about which they knew nothing, while their real incomes reflected their athletic achievements. That official fraud enabled them to take part in so-called amateur races and competitions. I am fully aware that Czechoslovakia was not alone in this. Endless debates went on worldwide about how to distinguish between amateurs and professionals and separate them, and dodges were always being found in order to create the impression of amateurism under professional conditions.
  However, the professionalization of sport is linked to its commercialization. These days it is inconceivable for an athlete to perform at the highest levels without the support of the various scientific and technical conveniences made possible by technological advance. I have my doubts about many practices but I understand the reasons why athletes might avail of them. The problem is that without them they might never become top-level athletes. As a result, the enticing environment of sport is interwoven with the interests of countless firms and the interests of those firms' interests. Athletes are targeted by specialists in left ankles, specialists in right ankles, engineers in aerodynamics and chemists developing thermal underwear. These, at least, directly affect their condition and performance. I feel much more uneasy as the sight of dozens and hundreds of managers and managers of those managers. I ask myself whether athletes - however much I value their achievements - are not kept artificially in the spotlight by advertising and the media chiefly to boost the income of those managers. I also ask myself whether there is any limit to this trend. In such a situation do we still feel any affinity with the achievements?
  I also have to ask the question why winning world championships and appearing regularly on the front page of the newspapers is so attractive to the media, whereas none of us are likely to remember the name of the scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine last year. After all, don't his discoveries help alleviate suffering and prolong life? My explanation is that his field of study seems to many people - including me, of course - inaccessible and over-specialized, whereas we all feel ourselves experts at sport and games. But is it not the duty of the media to focus precisely on someone whose ideas are accessible only to a few and thus convey and explain them at least in principle. I'm afraid the only explanation that comes to mind is that sport and games are readily intelligible and thus an easy way of making the kind of money, that one would have to wait decades for in other fields, if it all. But that requires it to be kept on the entertainment ladder..
  Of course it is splendid that at the very same moment millions of viewers can watch a sporting event taking place on the other side of the globe. But how does such a viewer actually watch his favorite athlete or team? I think I am not wrong in saying that he is sprawled on a couch somewhere nibbling various snacks and washing them down with over-sweetened lemonade or beer. Perhaps the only variation among viewers the world over is in the brand of snacks and drinks, and even that is only rarely the case. Our consumer looks on sports events as television entertainment and the exertions he watches maybe titillate him but do not motivate him in any way. Maybe if he were walking through a park and someone invited him to join in a game, he might be tempted. But he experiences sport as a backdrop, a television serial. The environment of the sports event on the TV screen is so impersonal - the athletes often look more like aliens than people of flesh and blood - that our viewer feels no direct affinity with the event; he takes sides, grumbles and enjoys himself passively. Coubertin's idea was something else, however: joint participation, creativity and a sense of truth.
  Of course top-level performance is out of the question somewhere on a bumpy meadow behind a house. It requires stringent conditions, and the large financial outlay involved in sport and athletics is partly recompensed in the form of new opportunities. Nonetheless I believe it is in the power of sports representatives, advertisements and the media to do more to promote active sport, even though amateur. I fear, however, that if sport continues to be presented as passive entertainment - and that is its most successful area of commercialization - better results will not be achieved.
  What follows from this?
  It is obvious that sport and games are a part and parcel of all social changes, helping bring them about and reflecting developments within society and politics. And often it is the names of successful sportsmen and sportswomen that are remembered by people all over the world and their performances are the calling card of an entire nation.
  If in future sports show a tendency to turn inwards, in other words, if they depoliticize themselves and offer performance for performance sake, they will shun their responsibility and remain simply entertainment, albeit attractive and commercially successful. Athletic self-discipline, self-surpassment and the will to win are not aims in themselves. It is therefore essential to return to the Olympic ideals as a spiritual source and put them into practice. Only in this way has sport to chance to be a profound and truly global inspiration.
  If the organization of the Olympic Games has been entrusted to a country that suppresses human rights and the rights of cultural minorities, then it must be clearly conditional on the release of political prisoners and the introduction of reforms. We must demand all this persistently and rigorously. I do not doubt in the least that China will organize the Olympics in truly magnificent style. But if profits from advertisements and souvenirs win out over fundamental human rights it will be a denial of the original Olympic ethos and we will all share the blame for the celebration of body without spirit.
  It is a well-known fact that Koreans from both states take part in the Olympic Games under a single flag and as a single team. If only this were a sign that freedom and democracy are making gains and that what belonged together will belong together again.