The Tradition and Spirit of Ekecheiria

The original Olympics began in Ancient Greece somewhere around 884 B.C., as a religious festival, honoring deceased heroes and various Gods, namely Zeus, the King of all Gods. No fighting or war was allowed among soldiers during the Olympics, since it was a time to respect the Gods, and a time of peace among one another. This truce, or “ekecheiria,”  means “holding of hands.” The term is Inscribed on a bronze diskos displayed at Olympia, Greece.

The ancient Greeks believed strongly in the concept of “Agon,” or “competition” and were highly competitive. The Greek word “Athlete” is a combination of two words “athlos” and “ego.” Together, these words imply the struggle for the improvement of one’s character. Therefore, the games became about being the best athletes they could be, not only physically, but also morally and spiritually. The athletes were required to relinquish any sense of self-arrogance and enter the stadium with a contrite heart, without anger, hatred or fighting. The ancient Olympiads also had a strong sense of Philoxenia for their competitors, which means the “love of foreigners or strangers.”  The Olympic Games attracted athletes from all over the Greek world

With the secularization of the Olympic Games around 420 A.D., much of the original significance was retained and can still be seen in today’s games. The Olympics continue to represent virtue, hospitality, peace, unity and diversity, bringing all of humankind together.

The  Olympic Rings symbolize the union and meeting of the five continents, and the flame spreads a message of universal peace. At the start of every Olympics, a flame is lit in Olympia, Greece, and the Olympic Torch is then carried to the host city, establishing the connection between the ancient and modern Olympic Games.

Let’s remember the President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach’s words at the 2022 Winter Olympic Closing Ceremony: 

Each and every one of you strived to achieve your personal best. We were deeply touched how you were wishing and cheering for your competitors to achieve their best as well.

You not only respected each other. You supported each other. You embraced each other, even if your countries are divided by conflict.

You overcame these divisions, demonstrating that in this Olympic community, we are all equal. We are all equal – regardless of what we look like, where we come from, or what we believe in.

This unifying power of the Olympic Games is stronger than the forces that want to divide us: you give peace a chance.

May the political leaders around the world be inspired by your example of solidarity and peace.

President Bach’s words echo the spirit established during the very first Games that can also be found in the resolution adopted by the United Nations called, “Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal.” The resolution “calls upon all Member States to cooperate with the International Olympic Committee to use sport as a tool to promote global peace, dialogue and reconciliation.

Four days after the closing ceremony while the world was still basking in the celebration and glory of the Olympic Games, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, which indicates that he was waiting for the Olympics to end, casting a black shadow over this global display of Ekecheiria,  Philoxenia,  and celebration.  

Although the population of Ukraine is diverse, it is made up of 67% Eastern Orthodox Christians, and it seems that it was no mistake that Putin carefully planned his attack during another celebration and time of year that is central to the Easton Orthodox faith, tradition and identity. Lent. A time of  frequent church services, prayer, spiritual reflection, repentance, joy and gratitude for God’s blessings, particularly family, friends and neighbors. 

One can’t help but surmise that the timing of the invasion was premeditated with all of the above in mind, since a large aspect of warfare is to not only weaken and destroy a population physically, but also psychologically by attacking its identity through its cultural and religious practices and traditions.

Moreover, Lent, much like the inspiration for the original Olympics, is a time to reflect on how we can become the best that we can be in the eyes of God. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Lent lasts for 40 days, while the Olympic Games occur every four years, in order for the athletes to train to be the best they can be, both physically and ethically.

Since February 24, approximately 3 million refugees have been violently uprooted and forced to flee their homes, escaping to Poland, Romania and other countries. There have been over 2,000 casualties, including an estimated 97 children.  

In the midst of Putin’s attempts, however, we see the spirit and flame of Ekecheiria burning strong, perhaps stronger than ever, as surrounding countries continue to take in refugees, donate resources, as vast numbers of volunteers travel from around the world to Ukraine and its borders.

The Olympic flame is perhaps meant to symbolize that the underlying goodness and strength of the human character can never be put out and will always prevail, even in what seems the darkest of times. 

In honor and memory of all citizens and Martyrs of Ukraine and around the world who stand together and have given their lives in the name of  peace and solidarity. 

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