Generations for Peace

'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."


Bearing down, Sochi-style, for volunteers

SOCHI, Russia -- For those of us lucky enough to live in Los Angeles,  it's both normal and yet incredible what inevitably happens when there's some sort of Olympic-themed event in town. It has already been 26 years since the 1984 Summer Games. And yet, whenever there's something Olympic going on, it's all but guaranteed that someone in the crowd will, unprompted, announce both that he or she was a volunteer at those 1984 Games and that it still ranks way up high there on the list of life's great experiences.

Which is why being here, in Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Games, is -- among many reasons -- so intriguing.

There's no real volunteer culture in Russia.

And that's a fact they're trying to change -- indeed, already making some small headway -- with the Sochi Games as catalyst. A "new page in our country," Dmitri Vityutnev,  the Russian official overseeing the volunteer effort, said in a speech  here Thursday.



That there is a Russian ministry official in charge of volunteering speaks to the nature of how things are different here than in, for instance, the United States, where the tradition is firmly established and is hardly considered a state function.

That there is a Russian ministry official in charge of volunteering also speaks, loudly and clearly, to how an Olympics can produce a legacy that extends beyond the construction of, say, a ski jump ramp -- and how that legacy doesn't have to wait until a Games is over to become real.

"The volunteers are a new generation -- like the generation in the mid-'60s called the baby boomers," said a 19-year-old university student, Ekaterina Tskhakaya, a volunteer at a 10-day workshop here for what's called Generations for Peace.

All six prior Generations for Peace workshops -- the outreach project aims to use sport as a means to defuse conflict -- have been held in the Middle East. The program was launched by Prince Feisal of Jordan and his wife, Princess Sarah, a couple increasingly influential in International Olympic Committee circles.

This seventh workshop is here, in Sochi -- in part a reflection of the growth of the Generation for Peace brand and in part a mini-model for some of the initiatives the Russians aim to promote before, during and after the 2014 Games.

Like the concept of volunteerism.

Most people in the world will never attend an Olympic Games in person. For that matter, even in a city staging the Games it may not be all that easy to score a ticket.

Those two reasons explain why the reach of the movement arguably finds its greatest one-to-one in-person connection in one of two ways:

The journey of the Olympic flame relay.

And volunteering.

An Olympics, Summer or Winter, is now such a grand-scale undertaking that it would be impossible to run a Games without volunteers. The London 2012 organizing committee volunteer effort, for instance, makes for Britain's biggest post-World War II volunteer recruiting campaign.

London 2012 organizers need 70,000 volunteers. They announced Thursday that more than 100,000 have already applied, 2012 Games chairman Seb Coe telling the Associated Press he is "thrilled with the response we've had."

A volunteer force that's sub-par can make for a major Games buzz-kill. On the other hand, a great volunteer crew indisputably makes a great Games great.

Wilfried Lemke, the United Nations' special advisor on the use of sport as a development and peace-building tool, said here earlier in the week amid a presentation to the Generations for Peace group -- 57 delegates from 11 nations -- that what he recalls most about the 2008 Beijing Games is the volunteer spirit.

"I might forget who won the 5,000 meters in track and field. But," he said referring to an 18-year-old volunteer, Wang Yang, who helped look after him in Beijing, "I will never forget the kindness of how she welcomed me with a ni hao every morning," Chinese for hello and welcome.

It's foolish to pretend that such one-on-one goodwill doesn't hold the potential for positive political, diplomatic and business consequences.

There are roughly 20-some million Australians and before the 2000 Sydney Games there were doubts in some quarters about the ability of a nation that small to pull it all off. Now those Games are remembered as one of the best-ever, if not the best, and in significant measure because the volunteers were so incredibly friendly and helpful.

"I've had successive prime ministers tell me that when they travel other world leaders want to talk to them about the Sydney Games," the head of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, said in an interview last month marking the tenth anniversary of those Games.

Vityutnev on Thursday handed out a passport-sized booklet to the Generations for Peace audience, and for the six Russians among the 57 it probably held extra significance -- Vityutnev saying the idea is that volunteers will fill the booklet just like you fill a real passport, and that a record of such volunteer service will be promoted as a career-builder.

Russia is hardly the only country in this part of the world confronting -- in some cases again, in some anew -- the concept of volunteerism.

In Serbia, "we have had to build it up again like a phoenix," said Andrej Pavlovich, one of the 57 in the audience. A 30-year-old English teacher, he served as a supervisor in the organizing of more than 10,000 volunteers for the 2009 University Games in Belgrade. A "milestone," he said.

They're looking for 25,000 volunteers for the Sochi 2014 Games.

There were 10 on hand here Thursday at the Generations for Peace workshop, identifiable in their white T-shirts with black sleeves or blue polo shirts.

"Hey, every1! I'm a Volunteer!" Dana Vorokova wrote in the volunteers' newsletter (already -- a volunteers' newsletter). "It's G8!"

Ekaterina Tskhakaya also contributed to the newsletter. She wrote, "The obligations of volunteers have no limits. You can never know what kind of situation you will face, and when.

"You must always be ready to take on any job and this is what makes our work exciting. It starts from stuffing refrigerators with water and providing delegates with pens to helping the lecturers make their presentations and translating to royal highnesses.

"You know, when sending applications to participation in the event you never know what surprises are waiting for you. I love this feeling of getting involved in all sorts of activity, gaining all-around experience, investigating and which is more important -- making your own contribution to the event."