This past June I had the amazing opportunity to attend the International Olympic Academy (IOA) in Greece, and I would like to share my experience and takeaways.
First off, let me explain what exactly the IOA is. The IOA strives to promote Olympism and its values worldwide by hosting sessions for various groups throughout the year. I attended the International Session for Young Participants, which is open to anyone age 18-35. Every National Olympic Committee (NOC) selects 1-3 representatives to attend the session each year. The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) chose three people - myself, Cole McKeel and Jen Gallagher. I was the only athlete since both Cole and Jen work for the USOPC.
For more information about the IOA, visit the website or reach out to me if you have any questions.
I was very excited to be selected as one of the three attendees since I am passionate about the Olympics and going to Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics, to learn and meet people from all around the world was right up my alley. If you are an athlete who is interested in the Olympic Movement, I highly recommend applying for this program next year.
Our days at the IOA consisted of morning lectures, group discussions, and social activities in the evenings. We also went on several excursions to historically significant places like the Olympic stadium in Athens, Ancient Olympia, and the town of Delphi. There were 156 participants from 86 countries, and including the 15 or so coordinators, it was a large and diverse group of young people.
Aside from the more academic discussions, there were also many social and cultural activities we could partake in like sports, dance and art workshops and visits to the local bar in Ancient Olympia. It wasn’t all classroom style work - we got to have a lot of fun too!
Takeaway: Be open-minded to people who have different opinions than your own.
I feel like one of the greatest ways to become a wholesome and worldly person is to travel and interact with people who come from different cultures and backgrounds than you. At the IOA, 86 countries were represented which is a whole lot of diversity! We were broken up into ten groups and worked on two projects that we later presented in front of all the participants.
These discussion groups gave us a great opportunity to dive deeper into the main topic of this year’s session, which was “Olympic Diplomacy: How can Olympic sports play a positive role in international diplomacy?” We talked at length about how the Olympic Movement can help foster friendship, cooperation and acceptance around the world and because everyone came from different backgrounds, there were varying opinions that made for a robust discussion.
In getting to know some of the other participants I learned about the role sport plays in different cultures and some of the challenges these countries face. It was inspiring to see so many young people be so passionate and excited about bringing positive change to their countries. I think that’s the point of programs like the IOA - to get like-minded people to come together and share ideas.
It’s important to stay open-minded and respectful to varying opinions in environments like this. Our beliefs are all built on past experiences and the cultures we grow up in, and we need to remember that when we hear an opinion that’s different than our own. The IOA provided a platform for us to have discussions in which people felt comfortable sharing their opinions because everyone was open to hearing different viewpoints of the same topic.
Takeaway: Sport has the power to change the world
Because of this year’s session topic, the conversation focused around the role of sport in international diplomacy. One of the reasons I am so passionate about the Olympic Movement is because it’s the only event in the world that allows athletes from all walks of life to compete on the world stage in the pure spirit of competition. As declared in the Olympic Truce, during the time of the Games there shall be no wars or violence, which plays a big role in promoting peace around the world.
Before coming to the IOA, I was pretty opposed to using sport as a means to assert political power. I’ve seen time and time again governments and the media spending much of the Olympic coverage to portray the host country in a negative light instead of focusing on what the Olympics are actually about - the athletes! In addition, political regimes sometimes use the medal count as a way to underline their superiority, which again takes away from the real focus of the Games.
Throughout the IOA, we talked about several examples in which sport has historically played a positive role in international relations, like the unification of the two Koreas for the Opening Ceremony in PyeongChang 2018. This definitely opened my eyes to the ways sport can positively influence diplomacy. International sporting events provide a platform for athletes, coaches, officials, and delegates to interact with and be exposed to people from other cultures. Governments have used these events as a platform for to have political dialogues and for diplomats to connect with each other on a more human level while perhaps watching a sporting event.
Sport cannot fix all political problems, but it can certainly try. If anything, it gives people (and especially children) a means to learn valuable life lessons and encourages Excellence, Respect and Friendship (the core values of Olympism). Whether on the grassroots or elite levels, sport is an integral part of our global society, and we must work to preserve these values as we aim to create a tolerant and violence-free world.
Even though we all came from different backgrounds, all of the attendees agreed on one thing - that we want to use this experience to bring positive change to our nations, but how do you do that? When you think about wanting to “change the world,” it seems daunting and overwhelming. However, making change on a local or community level is already doing something. You don’t need to take on a big global project in order to impact someone’s life in a meaningful way. Small wins can be enough and I’m excited to see what kind of positive change our group of Young Participants will bring!
Overall the IOA was a great experience for me and I am thankful for the opportunity to attend. If you are interested in applying for next year’s session, don’t hesitate to email me with any questions you have!
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