Social Responsibility That Comes With Competing in the Olympics

Social Responsibility - Sport For Peace

Today, the world’s top sport stars receive the attention, fame and status of Hollywood movie stars. Whereas 20-30 years ago only the very top and most charismatic sports professionals achieved this status, the media spotlight is firmly on all sports men and women that reach the top of their game, often followed and idolised in their home countries and around the world.

Olympic athletes and champions have a status that is unequalled in sport, winning an Olympic Gold medal is universally seen as a great and noble achievement due to the status and ethos of the Olympic movement. Many Olympic athletes are international icons, and can possess very high levels of influence, particularly on children and younger people. This is especially the case for record breakers, the most extreme current example being Usain Bolt, the 100m and 200m Olympic champion and world record holder.

With this increased international focus on Olympians, and sportsmen more generally, has come an increased focus and discussion on their wider social responsibilities and their potential ability to make a difference beyond the Olympics and sport.

The Olympics has always been about more than just the sports and events. Indeed, the whole Olympic movement was established as a tool to promote wider ideals and principles of the Peace Movement followed by the people who founded the modern Olympics. With athletes currently enjoying their highest status ever, they have an important role in promoting the IOCs objectives of peace and development.

Giving Back

Almost all Olympians feel keenly the responsibility they have in giving what they can to communities and helping in the development of others. There is a strong belief running through all those involved with the Olympics and the wider sporting community in general that sport and exercise can have a profound positive social effect on a range of areas such as physical health, personal self worth, social spirit and community development.  To get to the top of their sports, all Olympic athletes have had to embrace many of these principles and apply them to their own lives, and this personal experience and the success it has had on their lives is a valuable example they feel they can pass on to others.

The areas in which an athlete can use their experiences for positive effect are very wide ranging, as many of the basic principles can be applied across many fields.

Of course, the most obvious and readily applicable is the sporting stage, and most athletes at some stage will work on sporting development. Athletes are keen to offer coaching and training to youth athletes, helping to nurture potential talent into the next Olympic champion but also helping everyone reach their sporting potential and help promote the participation of sport to others. Athletes tend to focus on helping in their own sporting fields as it is the area where they can offer the most benefit, but athletes will often promote sport and exercise participation more generally.

The main focus of an athlete will be given in their own countries, giving back to the people and communities that helped and supported them in achieving their ambitions. This is encouraged by the IOC, as an athlete’s influence has its greatest potential in their native countries due to the increased focus and status they receive there. By each athlete providing significant contributions in their own countries, the IOC can maximise the potential for sporting and social development globally.

International Development

However, while there is a significant social responsibility within their own countries, Olympic athletes have an opportunity to bring social change and development internationally. Because the Olympics is a global event, and athletes are competing to be the best in the world, their potential for global influence is very high. Being the ‘fasted man in the world’ has a unique status that crosses all borders and cultures, commanding respect many politicians would dream of having. Many people around the world will sit and watch Olympians and be inspired, and athletes and the IOC are keen to maximise this potential in brining social development around the world.

This work will take place before and after an Olympics as well as during the event. The IOC is keen to use an upcoming Olympics as a focal point to facilitate social change, while also maximising the influence an Olympics has had on people around the world for as long as possible.

This focus of social development is particularly on poorer communities or communities that currently have limited access to sporting opportunity. This is an area that has been greatly advanced by the London Olympics, with the London Olympic organisation conducting international development projects on a scale not seen before. The legacy of the London Olympics both at home and worldwide has been a keen focus of the London organisers and it is hoped this work will provide lasting and sustained change in these communities.

By taking world famous sports stars and promoting the personal benefits sport has to offer to these communities, the IOC and the London Olympic organisers hope to build a strong and positive association between the people and sport and exercise, and in turn a strong association with and influence of the positive social principles that go with it. I.E. linking the strong positive feelings and enjoyment people experience with sport and exercise during these development programs with the ethos of social cohesion, community spirit and peace.

While Olympic organisers play a key role in bringing these development projects to remote communities around the world, often enabling them to watch an Olympics on TV or participate in sport of the first time, the effectiveness of these projects are greatly enhanced if they are supported and attended by Olympic athletes.

International sports stars like David Beckham use their influence in many social areas, from inner cities of the western world to small villages in developing countries, to promote positive development. Olympic athletes have this same potential, to a lesser or greater extent. Few people are able to go to such contrasting situations, talking to city youth gangs or communities that struggle even to find water and be listened to, admired and respected. The positive influence and profound change that can be made by athletes can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the projects run by the IOC and Olympic organisations. Meeting and being coached by a multiple gold medal winner is something special to people in communities around the world, and the responsibility of athletes to use their potential for positive influence in a great many areas is very strong and keenly felt by them.


The focus is mainly, although not exclusively, on children and the younger generations. This is because they have the greatest potential to be influenced, and the morals and lifestyles developed during a person’s childhood stays with them for life. Instilling the principles and ethos of the Olympic movement and promoting sport and exercise while a person is young is more likely to remain with that person throughout their life, therefore providing them with greater health and personal development as well as improving wider social cohesion, understanding and tolerance.

London 2012 Progress

A key part of London’s winning bid was its legacy ambition, promoting sport and its positive influence on a scale not seen before by a host nation. While developments such as infrastructure, facilities and housing in London and the UK were key parts of the long term legacy strategy within Britain, the increased participation in sport and the significant increase in the promotion of associated ideals was the main objective, and while London 2012 intends to significantly advance these areas at home, the international development is breaking new ground.

The specific pledge was made by the head of the London 2012 Olympics, Sebastian Coe:

 'reach young people all around the world and connect them to the inspirational power of the Games so they are inspired to choose sport ... improving their lives as a result'

The UK is a leading country in world sport, home to many of the world’s highest profile and most participated sports. It is also the birthplace of sport as a social tool, developed in the public schools of the 19th century to further you people’s physical and social lives. In bidding to host the Games, London was keen to use its unique ability to bring the Games and sport to new people and communities, helping to improve the quality of life of many people around the world.

This is being conducted under the ‘International Inspiration’ Program, consisting of three key areas. Not only has it worked to increase the number of young people around the world playing sport, but has also worked to implement long term structures and initiatives to enhance and maintain participation, by training coaches, teachers and leaders to lead the development in the long term, and working with policy makers to enhance the provisions and profile of sport and exercise in schools and communities. This work has been focused in the Indian sub continent and southern Asia, the Middle East and Africa, as well as areas of South America.

Leading British Olympians and athletes both past and present play a key role as ambassadors in this project, helping to raise its profile and work directly with people in communities in these countries. As we enter the final year before the London Olympics, more international and UK athletes will be joining in this project to take the Games to more and more people around the world.

London has worked hard to raise the status and importance of this work, and help Olympic athletes meet and surpass their own expectations of their social responsibilities both at home and abroad. By building connections and relationships with these communities, and working to inspire interest and enthusiasm for the Olympics, athletes can have a greater impact in helping to change their lives. This important work could potentially reach its highest level to date in the months after the Olympics, where more athletes than ever before will have a very high global status and will have the structure and mechanisms in place to reach many more people at this optimum time.  

World Peace

The IOC also is keen to promote a wider, global social agenda in the promotion of peace, a key founding principle of the Olympic Movement. While this principle has been at the heart of the Olympic movement, enhancing peace by bringing people together through sport and increase understanding and tolerance, it is only recently that there has been coordinated, strategic action to use sport to not just promote peace, but bring it about.

The international development programs play a role in this strategy. By going out into the communities around the world and promoting development, links and friendships are built, while also enabling the IOC to take its key aims and messages to those communities.

In 2009, the fist ‘International Forum on Sport, Peace and Development’ took place. This was a joint venture between the IOC and ‘Olympic Truce’, which is the organisational arm of the IOC that is responsible for promoting the ancient Olympic tradition of holding a truce amongst all participating peoples during the Olympics. This idea was re-established in 1992, and the IOC has increasingly been active in promoting truces throughout the world, and not just during the Olympics.

This initial forum was set up to coordinate the efforts of the IOC, its member committees and countries in promoting development through sport with other institutions and national governments to further enhance the spread of and world peace. The IOC has long realised that sport is not a solution to all the world’s problems, but can be a powerful tool in helping to address them, and by working with a wide network of governments and organisations it can have a much greater effect. Creating networks linked by shared values and ambitions helps the IOC reach more people, and increasing these networks has therefore been a key aim of the IOC in its world peace agenda.

The forum was setup to bring together important community organisations, governments, religions, international sports federations, UN agencies, National Olympic Committees, individuals and others to discuss the role of sport in promoting peace and development. This was the first time that such a forum had taken place.

In 2010, the second forum was held in joint partnership between the IOC and the United Nations. Such was the success of the initial forum, and the potential seen by governments, the UN has taken a keen an active role in using sport to promote world peace.

It is hoped that, through these forums and further discussions and initiatives the influence of sport in promoting peace and development can be enhanced, making it more effective in what it does and also increasing its influence even further. It is also hoped that greater coordination with other charities and organisations that have similar goals will produce a much greater impact in achieving these goals.

Initiatives have already been undertaken and had significant success. The NOCs of Israel and Palestine perhaps provide the best example of this new initiative. Perhaps the most volatile of relationships in the world today, the Israel-Palestine situation is seen by many as the key to unlocking world peace. There are few forums and situations where the two countries have been able to work effectively in promoting peace and development, especially at governmental level. However, with the new ‘Sport for Peace ‘ initiative of the IOC, the NOCs of Israel and Palestine have been working together on a road map to enhance peace, understanding and development between the two countries using sporting initiates since January 2011. Their current success has recently been honoured by the City of Rome, being given their annual and prestigious ‘Capitoline Wolf’ prize, which marks the birthday of the City of Rome.

This recognition is important as the resolution to these conflicts is often found in the development of understanding and tolerance between the people, rather than governments, and only through ground up methods and changes. Sport offers a real and effective tool in bring this about, and it is hoped that the Sport for Peace initiative can further the success of the IOC and other organisations in resolving these and other conflicts around the world. 


R. Harris

Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University Founder