Gary Rhodes: Bearing the Torch for Olympic Ideals and Global Understanding

Recent book chapter details opportunity for high-profile athletes and sporting events to promote global understanding and peace.

Embedded in the spirit of competition and athletic excellence of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi is a deeper mission and goals that most people are not aware of. The coming-together of athletes, coaches, and spectators from the world over is a gathering with tremendous potential to build a greater sense of global harmony and cross-cultural understanding, according to Gary Rhodes, director of UCLA’s Center for Global Education.

Gary Rhodes is director of the
Gary Rhodes is director of UCLA’s Center for Global Education and a research associate focused on higher education internationalization at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa. Photo by Todd Cheney, UCLA

Rhodes has co-written a chapter titled, “Initiatives Beyond the Competition:  Common Purposes Connecting International Sport and Education” with Jessica Zlotnicki of WorldTeach Columbia for the recently published book, “Olympism, Olympic Education, and Learning Legacies” (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2014). In it, the authors posit the idea that high-profile sports events like the Olympics provide an opportunity to teach, create, and promote more peaceful relationships among nations during and after the Games.

“Fair competition is one important aspect of the Olympics that translates to fair interactions between people,” they write. “However, defining, developing and assessing fair interactions in real life outside of the athletic competition itself is not currently a designed part of the Olympic experience.”

Rhodes, Director of the Center for Global Education in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA is also a research associate focused on higher education internationalization at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  He says that the Olympic athletes, not unlike university students who study abroad, are representing their home countries and require support to maximize the personal, social, and cultural learning that can be gained through these experiences.

“Both have key goals by which they’re judged,” says Rhodes. “For students, it’s letter grades. For athletes in Olympic competition, it’s gold, silver, and bronze. However, if you look at universities and the priorities for [the study abroad] experience, it’s not just about grades. It’s about the international learning that takes place, getting to experience another part of the world, personal development, and a broader understanding with other impacts like retention and success, engagement, career support, and higher learning in general.

“The majority of the athletes don’t go home with a medal. If you look at the ideals of the Olympic Games and Olympism, which include youth development, global understanding, and peace, gold, silver, and bronze aren’t the key elements to achieving that goal.”

Rhodes says that as the vision and mission of the Olympics goes beyond simply athletic competition, he feels that the International Olympic Committee, Olympic committees in individual countries, and coaches and mentors who support athletes could do more to give athletes a better understanding of the Olympic ideals. He also says that athletes should be given opportunities for self-reflection and encouraged to come up with goals for what they can accomplish outside of their athletic competition. The Center for Global Education has developed online courses to support study abroad students to take before, during, and after their international experience. In the book, they’ve provided an outline of pre-departure course curriculum that could support Olympic athletes.

“We go through a range of issues that deepen the preparation process for athletes; thinking in broader terms about higher ideals of Olympism at the same time as they plan to compete in their sport; thinking about what they have to contribute at home, abroad, and in the [whole of] society,” Rhodes says.

Rhodes also says that the International Olympic Committee could consider ways to recognize athletes and individuals who focus on civic and social engagement such as working with youth in their home countries, provide examples of ways they develop friendships with athletes they may be competing with after the competition from other countries and how that is meaningful, and ways the sport can support youth development and education..

“On the Center for Global Education website, we have examples of good work done by Olympic athletes,” says Rhodes. “There’s a lot of good work done, outside of their competitions, and it’s important to recognize and support that.

“Athletes are in a place where they achieve in partial terms based on [completing] a goal and are being recognized for it,” he notes. “So I think that it would be wise for the International Olympic Committee to start providing recognition for athletes, coaches, and members of sporting organization and country-based Olympic Committees that work towards Olympic ideals, beyond skiing downhill or playing hockey”

Per the charter of International Olympic Committee of 2013 is the mission of “Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles…(placing) sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity… practicing sport without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.” Initial news prior to the Sochi Olympics focused on potential terrorism and concerns of discrimination. The U.S. media coverage of the first week of the Winter Olympics highlighted U.S. athletes, their personal stories, and a medal county.

For the remainder of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Rhodes says that he hopes that media coverage highlights activities that support Olympism and the goals of the Olympic movement.  This could include a focus on relationships that are enhanced between athletes from different countries through planned interactions in the Olympic Village, as well as highlighting projects in countries around the world where Olympic athletes engage in youth development and international understanding.