When the Olympic Games are on, Summer or Winter, it’s easy to declare that they are not just relevant but material — that is, they matter, and a lot.
The challenge for everyone involved with the Olympic movement around the world is when the Games are not on, and that challenge is elemental: being relevant, especially to young people, and making a difference in their lives.
When a teen activist from Sweden can inspire far-reaching school climate strikes — and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination — is it really too much to ask the International Olympic Committee as well to seek to make a difference, a really big difference, in our broken world?
Coming together in peace and unity — that is the entire point of a Games’ opening ceremony. It’s why it is the highlight of any Olympics, the world’s athletes gathering in what is both an expression of hope and a longing for peace — that maybe, just maybe, as the inadvertent soul poet Rodney King once put it, we can all get along.
The Games and the underlying Olympic values — excellence, friendship, respect and, by extension, tolerance — are the very thing that stand in marked contrast to an abhorrent shooting spree like the one that ripped Thursday across two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The death toll now stands at 50.
Thus, this call for change:
At the Olympics, the guns have to go — that is, be gone.
Shooting has been a fixture on the Olympic program of the Summer Games since 1896, except in 1904 and 1928, and in the 21st century we have to ask — why?
Yes, it is the case that athletes from nations that perhaps otherwise would not make the Olympic podium might compete for medals in shooting. That is not reason enough.
The Olympics is about something bigger than each of us and all of us. The best of us. A higher cause, if you will.
Shooting is not that.
The current IOC president, Thomas Bach, is on record, and emphatically, about the importance of the Olympic values.
In explaining why esports had to meet certain conditions before being considered for inclusion, Bach said last September, “We cannot have in the Olympic program a game which is promoting violence or discrimination. So-called killer games. They, from our point of view, are contradictory to the Olympic values and cannot therefore be accepted.”
It’s difficult to reconcile that position with shooting, because a gun inherently is a violent instrument.
Bach is a fencer; he won a gold medal at the Montreal Games in 1976.
He also said in that same interview, “Of course every combat sport has its origin in a real fight among people. But sport is the civilized expression about this. If you have egames where it’s about killing somebody, this cannot be brought into line with our Olympic values.”
To be obvious: a sword can be a violent instrument.
A bow and arrow, too.
But a firearm is different.
To be clear:
It’s not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with responsibly owning or firing a gun. There’s not.
Further, one of America’s most decorated Olympic medalists is Kim Rhode, the double trap and skeet shooter. She has six Olympic medals, three gold. Her skill and will are consummate.
The question is whether, as a matter of promoting the best of humankind, shooting should be on the Olympic program.
It should not.
This inevitably leads to questions about modern pentathlon — which uses lasers, by the way, for its shooting portion.
And it ought to lead to hard questions as well about biathlon, in the Winter Games.
Bottom line: inclusion of guns on the program, Winter or Summer, normalizes and glamorizes the use of firearms.
Further: to those who have long argued that gun violence is uniquely an American problem, events keep proving otherwise.
Consider, in particular, the coordinated November 2015 terror attacks in France, where 90 were shot to death at the Bataclan theater and suicide bombers struck at the Stade de France, now destined to be the centerpiece of the 2024 Paris Games.
As a proportion of the national population, per a Wall Street Journal report, the death toll in Christchurch is equivalent to what the United States suffered on 9/11.
To see shooting off the Games program will be no easy thing. Unequivocally there are significant entrenched interests. Absolutely there will be pushback.
But this is a matter of doing the right thing, the IOC exercising institutional leadership for which it is uniquely positioned.
At the 1900 Olympics in Paris, competitors in the shooting competition sought to kill live pigeons. The one who shot the most birds dead was the winner.
After that, they changed to clay pigeons. No more slaughter.
At the Olympics: no more guns. And immediately if not sooner.