THE Olympic flame is making its way around the length and breadth of Britain, a vivid symbol of one of the key values of the ancient Games: freedom of movement. Before the games at Olympia, a truce was declared so that officials and athletes could make their way to the Games without hindrance or legal dispute. It’s an approach we still need today and it’s a shame that one of the more tangible forms in which its spirit lives on doesn’t get more attention: the legal relaxations that accompany the modern Games.
In modern times, the anti-war aspect of the Olympic truce has been emphasised instead. It’s true there was a restriction on military clashes for the duration: the historian Thucydides records that after the Lacedaemonians broke the truce they were forbidden to compete and fined 200,000 drachmas. And so before every modern Olympic Games a symbolic truce resolution is agreed at the United Nations: in 2011, London’s resolution was co-sponsored by the whole General Assembly for the first time. However, as with many things connected to the UN, this truce is strong on ideals and short on impact. North Korea and Iran added their names to the list, but their bellicosity proceeded without apparent remorse.
The original truce was a practical regime, not just a piece of one-world posturing. And today it is the unsung changes on tax and visas that really make the Olympics possible.
In 2010, the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, did not compete in the Aviva London Grand Prix because of Britain’s punitive tax laws. To prevent the follies of local politicians interrupting the greatest show on earth, the International Olympic Committee demands the host nation waive income tax for all non-residents involved with the Olympics for the duration, from athletes to foreign journalists and performers in the opening and closing ceremonies. Britain’s tax truce has been in force since 30 March this year. It will last until 8 November, giving a select few a much happier experience of the British taxman.
Onerous visa regulations are also relaxed in Olympic years. Sadly, Britain has failed to put in place a general Olympic visa waiver scheme, which won’t help the passport queues at Heathrow. Instead, we are issuing a special Olympic visa. But this summer Ireland wins the gold medal for its Olympian attitude to border control. Games Family members (athletes, coaches, officials and overseas media) can currently enjoy a visa truce if they fly to Dublin or Shannon airports, again lasting until 8 November.
Freedom of movement, like the freedoms of speech, of trade and of worship, opens up new possibilities for peace and human flourishing. Today we believe that if athletes cross borders, soldiers won’t. The Olympic truces on tax and visa law are the real achievements that make this movement possible, not grand UN resolutions. The lesson is clear: to bring the world together in peace and harmony, first persuade government to know its limits.