Olympic Spirit should be replicated and repeated

The opening of the Olympic Games and the “rush for gold” have dazzled and entertained us, but there is more to the Olympic Spirit than podiums and pride. I am including these notes from a speech by Gao Zhanxiang, chairman of the Chinese Cultural Promotion Society and former vice chairman of the Ministry of Culture, at the Truce Foundation of the USA Olympic awards ceremony, because they contain a lesson for individuals, businesses and nations alike.

The speech dealt with the need and means by which we can approach issues without the use of carrots and sticks and how events like the Olympics are part of that process. Here are the excerpts from his speech:

Last year, I delivered a speech on “Facilitating human civilization by using the power of culture” at the United States Library of Congress. Over the next few minutes, I will apply some of the concepts, including the importance of Soft Power and its connection to culture, which were developed for that speech, and for my book “The Power of Culture,” to the Olympics.

The Soft Power concept was developed and discussed by Joseph Nye in “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power” and refined in “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.” He described a third way to achieve goals, without carrots or sticks, by in essence co-opting one’s opponent through culture or ideology. While this is one way of looking at the concept, I prefer the idea that Soft Power represents a force through which individuals and nations can reach accord using normative patterns/rules of behavior which are not only accepted but aspired to. But, to use Soft Power to create a solution, you need to understand not only the different cultural assumptions and values of those involved but also the forces which shape what individuals and nations believe and how they act or react. This type of cultural understanding is the key to understanding the dynamics of individual and group actions and crafting solutions.

The Olympic Games are the world’s foremost international sports competition. Over the years, since its revival, it has developed a culture based on peaceful competition. These values and assumptions are the basis of the Olympic Spirit and Dream which each participant swears to uphold, but at every Olympic Games in recent memory, there have been instances where individuals and/or groups have felt compelled to act on interests which seem at odds with their oath. Despite these incidents, the Olympics has endured and thrived and in so doing become one of the best examples of Soft Power.

The reality is that individuals and groups have in the past and will in the future make decisions based on what they perceive to be important to their interests. Soft Power can not prevent this, but entities like the Olympics can provide a beacon of behavior to which individuals and groups aspire to and in so doing be an agent for positive cultural change.

My own theory about Soft Power is that the assumptions and values which make up an individual’s and/or a group’s culture are dynamic and capable of change. In fact I go one step further and posit that the ability to examine and challenge our assumptions and values is the key to a meaningful life. Thus to me, the power of culture is the key to both a meaningful individual and collective existence. It is my hope that the Olympics will continue to be a light which inspires the thinking and actions of people and groups around the world. As part of this effort, I strongly urge the Olympic committees at the national and international level to consider strengthening the connection between ideals and action by reviving the competitions for excellence in educational and cultural achievement. It was an integral part of the original Olympics, and like the concept of the Olympic Truce, its time has come. Reuniting the pursuit of excellence in mind and body will inspire a new generation to compete and contribute in areas whose value is both a source and a means of maintaining our humanity in a competitive world.

For those of you who found value in these words, Minister Gao will be visiting Milwaukee as part of a cultural exchange in late April 2009.

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