On April 6 (The UN International Day of Sport for Development & Peace) I will set out on a 2000 mile, five-month, solo-walk from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro. The reason for the walk is twofold; to raise awareness for the 2016 Olympic truce and to raise funds for Unicef’s work with Children in Danger. Today I will be taking the first steps on that journey by stepping down as a Government Minister in the Home Office and taking Leave of Absence from the House of Lords.
To have the opportunity to serve in the House of Lords and in the Government is both an incredible privilege and responsibility. It has not been an easy decision. As a public servant I am accountable and I feel the need to explain my decision.
A couple of points of clarification: First, I am not a natural outdoors type–those who have seen me tucking into a fry up each morning in the Portcullis House cafeteria or at the end of the day in the Bishops’ Bar may question whether I am really up to the task–my sons remind me I am more ‘Beer & Grills’ than Bear Grylls. For this reason I can only walk when I have a clear purpose and the Olympic truce and Unicef will certainly keep me waddling along. Second, I could not do these walks without the dedicated support of my wife, Xuelin who goes ahead to plan the way, stays behind to pay the bills and spends the rest of the time on the telephone helping raise over £200,000 for the charities we support.
Let me take you back ten years to a quiet corner of a library in Durham University where I was undertaking academic research in the field of ethics and foreign policy. I was scrolling through UN General Assembly resolutions and came across one calling for observance of the 2004 Olympic & Paralympic Games in Greece. I read further and discovered that the resolution had been signed by 190 member states of the UN. I researched further to find examples of where the truce had been implemented and found none.
The Olympic truce I was to discover in the Modern era had become largely symbolic but in Ancient Games it was sacred. The Olympic truce wasn’t just part of the Ancient Olympics it was the entire point of the Ancient Olympics. The Games in 776BC were created in order provide an outlet for the innate male thirst for tribal violence and personal glory by competing in warrior skills without the kills. Athletes, officials and spectators would travel through previous hostile territories to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia in safety because of the truce. When they arrived they would be required to leave outside their national/city state identities and enter the sacred place together as Olympians. I read this and I was hooked by the beauty, nobility and humanity of the ancient Olympic ideal.
In 2011 I decided to visit the Temple of Zeus in Olympia to pay personal homage to the ideal and then decided to walk back to London, a journey of 3000 miles which took me through thirteen countries in ten months. It was a remarkable experience for what struck me was not how different we were but how similar. You smile and people smile back. You ask directions and people will do their best to help. You ask for accommodation and they ask for 50 euros (if you are lucky).
During the London Olympics & Paralympics I went to Lebanon and saw the unfolding crisis at first hand meeting refugees in the Bekaa Valley and seeing the work which aid organisations like World Vision and Save the Children were doing to bring practical help and support. The experience had a profound impact upon me.
Politics can often be a frustrating profession because you become increasingly exposed to and informed about the problems facing the world and yet feel increasingly powerless to do anything about it. We spend much of time responding to needs for action with words. I returned from Lebanon resolved to swap talking about the problems with walking for those providing solutions to those problems. In 2013 I walked 518 miles from London to London/Derry. In 2014 I walked 1042 miles from London to Berlin. Last year I walked 1057 miles from Beijing to Hangzhou.
This year I am walking from Buenos Aires which is host city for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games to Rio which is of course host to the 2016 Games. My route will take me through Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. My aims are: to encourage the 180 countries who signed up to the 2016 Olympic truce resolution at the UN General Assembly to do just one thing to implement its precepts.
The resolution calls upon all Member States of the UN to: ‘take concrete actions at local, national, regional and international levels to promote and strengthen the culture of peace based on the spirit of the Olympic Truce’ and ‘to use sport as a tool to promote peace, dialogue and reconciliation in areas of conflict during and beyond the period of the Olympic & Paralympic Games.’
Already I have heard the familiar response that we live in dangerous times and the idea of truce is at best sentimental and at worst dangerous. Fair enough, I respond, so why did you sign it? If you think it is a waste of paper don’t put your country’s name to it. If you do, then do at least something to implement it.
That said, one of the failings of the current discourse in the public square is that everyone is pointing the finger and shouting about what others should do rather than asking what they can do. Life isn’t a spectator sport we are all players on the field. Ghandi called on us all to ‘Be the change we want to see in the world’. I would acknowledge that my walking hasn’t changed the world but it has changed me and to that crucial extent perhaps it has changed the world.
You can follow my walk and support Unicef www.walkfortruce.org or follow on Twitter @bateslord