'You could feel the spirit'

SOCHI, Russia -- How many of you, asked Jim Beitia, know what this is? He held a metallic purple-colored softball bat. Better yet, he said a moment later, what are all the things could this be? A bat, someone said. Right, said Beitia, a longtime major-college softball coach back in the United States, a long way away from this part of the world, where softball is not well known. He asked, what else could it be? It could be a club, someone else said, a weapon. Right again. What else?

Silence. Well, Beitia said, it could be a tool -- an instrument for building peace. So, he said, let's go play.

 

 

The problem with world peace is not just that it's not realistic. The real problem is that if it's not realistic, no one tries.

Of course it's idealistic to try. But the entire thrust of the Olympic movement is to try, and the fundamental premise of an Amman, Jordan-based outreach project called Generations For Peace -- which on Sunday wrapped up its seventh wide-ranging workshop, its first not only in Europe but outside the Middle East -- is that sport genuinely can help, can promote one-on-one change.

For all those quick to dismiss a program such as Generations For Peace -- an initiative launched three years ago by Prince Feisal Al Hussein of Jordan, now an International Olympic Committee member, and his wife, Princess Sarah -- there's this: two of every three people in the world watch the opening ceremony of the Summer Games on television. At some level, in some fashion -- that's a lot of idealism out there.

The trick, as is obvious if no less difficult, is how to make it real.

There's no right way, and there's no only way. The Olympic scene is punctuated with ambassador programs and cultural exchanges and awards shows and more.

Generations For Peace has opted to do its work in a quiet fashion. Since the project's launch in 2007, it had staged -- before Sochi -- six workshops; those six trained some 460 community activists from 39 countries and territories; they have since passed on what they learned to 3,100 more coaches and community leaders; in all, Sarah said at the seminar, roughly 51,000 young people have been touched already in some way by the process.

The 57 who spent 10 days together in Sochi came from 11 European and Central Asian countries. They included survivors of the 1990s conflict in the Balkans and those who came of age in former Soviet republics now grappling with religious, political and economic tensions.

Over the 10 days they spent 80 hours in classroom sessions and 54 more on the sports fields and courts. The agenda ranged from sophisticated negotiation theory to how to hold a softball bat to common-sense advice: Connections and relationships matter. Talk with each other, not at each other. Small moments can be really big.

"On a football field, you can pass the ball to me and I can pass to you back,"  said one of the 57, Denis Kruzhkov, a 37-year-old Russian professor. "Even if we don't speak the same language, we can use signs and we can score a goal."

"Everybody is born with a purpose," said Emina Cerimovic, 26, a lawyer from Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Life is short. If we have to do something, then do it well. If you can make one child smile -- that's enough for me."

When Emina was just 8, her father was killed in the war that raged through the former Yugoslavia; he was just 33. She couldn't go to school for three years. Now, though, she has her law degree and is a finished thesis away from a master's degree.

A frequent community volunteer, this summer she voluntarily took part in the forensic identifications of some of the mass graves in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

There's no point, she said, in giving in to sadness, no matter how tempting. "My mom calls me idealistic," she said. "Many people do. But I still believe. And I really want to remain this way."

 

 

Such stories make for the soul of the program. They have received little or no publicity, however, because Generations For Peace has deliberately kept such a low profile.

Doing so has defused the inevitable suspicion that the initiative is but a vanity project for Middle Eastern royalty. Reality check: there's nothing vain about 57 people doing softball or volleyball drills in the rain, as they did here, most everyone in bright yellow slickers.

Moreover, operating out of the spotlight made it that much easier to tweak the program.

Among the faculty at the Sochi workshop:  Olivier Faure, a Sorbonne professor and expert on conflict resolution whose works have been published in 12 different languages.

"We want to promote reconciliation," he told the group in one of his lectures. "… It doesn't mean you need to fall in love the next morning with your enemy. Let's be realistic, let's be reasonable. We want decent co-0peration -- being able to live with each other, next to each other, without every day having the past in our minds."

Three years in, clearly something about Generations For Peace is clicking, the Sochi camp offering "more evidence of our global reach," Feisal said Sunday in a speech closing the seminar.

He said in an interview, "The energy, the enthusiasm, the passion you have from everybody involved -- it's very difficult to capture that in words and pictures," adding a moment later, "It's like you can describe what an orange tastes like but it's not until you taste an orange that you can say now, 'I know what it's like.' "

 

 

IOC President Jacques Rogge, visiting the Jordan Olympic Committee in Amman just a few days ago, said he was "very impressed" with what Feisal had done there, then -- unprompted -- called Generations For Peace a "great step forward in promoting peace through sport."

A major Generations For Peace sponsor announcement is forthcoming. The program's annual budget, figuring in three camps per year, now runs to about $1.5 million.

Last December, the IOC recognized Generations For Peace. That milestone  formally eased connections to the wider Olympic movement.

In the works now is the opening of research institute based in Amman, with ties to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. , designed to measure which parts of the program work and over how long, and which need to be reviewed and changed.

It's expected that each of those attending here will, once back home, work with at least 200 children and train at least 20 other adults -- each year.

Of the 57 on hand in Sochi, 10 were from Bosnia and Herzegovina -- four Croat Catholics, two Orthodox Serbs, four Bosniak Muslims. On Day One of the workshop, amid introductions, standing as a bunch at the front of the room, six of the 10 put their arms around the next person over.

As the workshop closed, again at the front of the room, after a short presentation -- all 10 linked up. "You could feel the spirit," Emina Cerimovic said.

Donna de Varona, the Olympic swim gold medalist turned broadcast journalist, was among those taking in that scene.  "I interpreted that," she said later, "as hope for the future."