Articles & Publications

Possibilities and limitations of intercultural education within the Olympic Movement


Possibilities and limitations of intercultural education within the Olympic Movement

The late Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport has the power to change the world”, which I firmly believe. In modern societies there is no other institution that gives so many people – regardless of their religion, gender, age, status etc. – access to physical, mental and social well-being. However, what is decisive – in everyday life as well as in sport – is how the game is played. This depends on the values and structures of each particular society. To think along the same lines as Norbert Elias, we could say it depends on how far the civilisation process has progressed in a given society. The more civilised a society is, the higher its moral consciousness and sense of responsibility.

In relation to sport this means: if the standards of behaviour and feeling of, say, society A are more civilised than those of society B, then A’s sports will be more humane than B’s. In other words, sport is not and cannot be better than the society it is practised in. We have seen this time and again, and so far there is no reason to believe it will be different in the future. This sounds pessimistic only if we are convinced that society is becoming less moral, less human. But, fortunately, the opposite development is also possible.

It is all a matter of values and norms. Values are the basis for making decisions or the culturally prescribed criteria by which individuals evaluate persons, behaviour, objects, and ideas, such as their relative morality, desirability, merit, or correctness. Important values are, for instance, democracy, health, fairness, tolerance, to mention only a few. Norms are derived from values and are established standards for rules of behaviour.

Human beings act on the basis of their values and norms. If an individual puts health first, they will act accordingly in and outside sports. However, an individual will behave differently if his or her predominant value is “success at any price”. This is reflected very clearly in sports.

For example, the Social-Darwinism concept “the survival of the fittest” manifests itself in the USA. A victory is glorified, as the following epigram of the successful American football coach Vince Lombardi shows: “Winning is not everything. It is the only thing”, along with a slogan in high schools: “They ask not how you played the game but whether you won or lost”.

In contrast, Lynn Ager, the first anthropologist to visit Nelson Island in Alaska, says: “The kind of competition I saw was one in which everyone tried to do his best but not at anyone else’s expense” (quoted by Calhoun, 1987, p. 60). These Inuits enjoyed a non-winning game.

Another example of a different attitude towards sport, although closer to the American model, is found in Austria’s skiing champions, who personify all the characteristics considered of value in this particular country. These athletes usually come from simple Alpine backgrounds, train rigorously, never give up, accomplish great things, are successful and – above all – remain modest. If they act according to the above values, they are not only admired and respected but also honoured.

From these examples we can learn that human beings are not born to be competitive or co-operative, aggressive or passive, “good” or “bad”, but behave as they do because of their culture. Culture is a product of education and socialisation.

Education/socialisation is:

• the transmission of culture

• the process of learning values, norms and social roles in order to become integrated in a social group or society

• the process of becoming human

It is important to note that although everyone undergoes education/ socialisation, not everyone undergoes the same education/socialisation experience. In different cultures children are educated and socialised differently. Through education/socialisation they learn the values, attitudes and normative behaviour of the society in which they grow up.

The point is that the relationship between sport and society is based on values and norms of the society in question. Cooperative societies have sports that minimize competition, while aggressive societies have highly competitive games.

But sport is not only a mirror or microcosm of society. Sport is more. Society’s values and norms can be seen and experienced in sport more than elsewhere. In other words: Sport is an outstandingly appropriate field for symbolic transfer and dialogue, as “its culture-specific action pattern (in the context of social value structures) shows itself particularly clearly and definitely” (Weiss, 1996, p. 109). This can be illustrated by using “achievement” as an example.

There are two aspects of achievement: action and representation. For instance, managers or politicians spend more than 80% of their time on “face work”, that is, on representation in order to improve their image. Their real action is not visible. Sometimes it takes years to see whether they have actually been successful. Modern society is not achievement-oriented but rather success-related. We are faced with the division between action and representation. Sport is different. What is typical of sport is the unity of action and representation, a unity that hardly exists anywhere else.

The clear symbols of sport unite action and representation, and reinforce the identity of the athlete. Whereas achievement in other areas remains invisible for many people and can often be appreciated only by experts, success in sport is immediately recognisable and can be understood by everyone. Performance in sport can be reduced to a quantifiable dimension: only goals, seconds, and centimetres count.

This is also the case for other values. In sport, and in particular at the Olympic Games, the first and foremost value can only be fair play. Any true victory relies on fair play. The idea of fair play was invented in sport and it constitutes its moral principle. Fair play means:

• firstly: equal opportunities for all participants

• secondly: respect for the opponent

• thirdly: strict adherence to the rules

It sounds easy, but it is definitely not. History tells us how difficult it is to put the principle of fair play into practice, be it in sport or in everyday life. Elias’ process of civilisation is still at an embryonic stage, it has just started.

Fair play has the potential for creating a peaceful and humane society. It contributes positively towards intercultural understanding and can serve as an Olympic education target. In fact, the core value of intercultural education within the Olympic Movement is fair play.

Since the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896 the Olympic Movement has become, to a large extent, identified with humanitarian ideals. Fair play and peace represent the legacy the ancient Greek Olympic spirit has left to our modern civilization. The institution of the Olympic Games was linked, from the very beginning, to the demand for world peace which would rely on the harmonious coexistence of all nations and races.

The Fundamental Principles of the Olympic Movement appear at the beginning of the Olympic Charter and constitute the ideological core of modern Olympism (IOC, 2013, p. 11):

1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. 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 and the respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

3. The Olympic Movement is the concerted, organised, universal and permanent action, carried out under the supreme authority of the IOC, of all individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism. It covers the five continents. It reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world’s athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games. Its symbol is five interlaced rings.

4. The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. The organisation, administration and management of sport must be controlled by independent sports organisations.

5. Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

6. Belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter and recognition by the IOC.

The educational mandate of the Olympic Movement is outlined in these Principles. Since the 1970s, there have been many interpretations and descriptions of what Olympic education means. For instance, Bruce Kidd (1985, p. 10) pointed out the following goals for an Olympic education program:

1. Mass Participation: the expansion of opportunities for sport and play to create what de Coubertin called “the democracy of youth”.

2. Sport as Education: the development of opportunities that are genuinely educational and assist both individuals and groups in the process of gaining knowledge.

3. Sportsmanship: the fostering of a high standard of sportsmanship that de Coubertin called “the new code of chivalry”. Today the world refers to this same concept as “fair play”.

4. Cultural Exchange: the integration of the visual and performing arts into the Olympic celebrations.

5. International Understanding: the creation of a movement where member- ship transcends racial, religious, political and economic categories; a brotherhood that promotes understanding and thus contributes to world peace.

6. Excellence: the pursuit of excellence in performance.

Müller (2004, p. 10 f.) listed the “features of an Olympic education, all of which can be traced back to Coubertin’s philosophical legacy”:

1. The concept of harmonious development of the whole human being.

2. The idea of striving for human perfection through high performance, in which scientific and artistic achievement must take equal rank with sporting performance.

3. Sporting activity voluntarily linked to ethical principles such as fair play and equality of opportunity, and the determination to fulfil those obligations; also included is the ideal of amateurism, which has been almost totally abandoned in international sport today.

4. The concept of peace and goodwill between nations, reflected by respect and tolerance in relations between individuals.

5. The promotion of moves towards emancipation in and through sport.

In the various versions of Olympic education we recognise similarities and crossovers. But the clear message is that the educational mandate of the Olympic Movement is a value education mandate. Binder (2007, p. 13) highlighted the following five educational values of Olympism:

1. Joy of effort: Young people develop and practise physical, behavioural and intellectual skills by challenging themselves and each other in physical activities, movement, games and sport.

2. Fair play: Fair play is a sports concept, but it is applied worldwide today in many different ways. Learning fair-play behaviour in sport can lead to the development and reinforcement of fair-play behaviour in the community and in life.

3. Respect for others: When young people who live in a multicultural world learn to accept and respect diversity and practise personal peaceful behaviour, they promote peace and international understanding.

4. Pursuit of excellence: A focus on excellence can help young people to make positive, healthy choices, and strive to become the best that they can be in whatever they do.

5. Balance between body, will and mind: Learning takes place in the whole body, not just in the mind, and physical literacy and learning through movement contributes to the development of both moral and intellectual learning. This concept became the foundation of Pierre de Coubertin’s interest in a revival of the Olympic Games.

Values do not emerge automatically. They have to be developed and taught. Fair play is a learned behaviour. Results of the study from Vidony and Ward (2009) support the assumption that interventions improve fair play behaviour.

The educational values of Olympism are a result of the Olympic Movement and should be taught continuously. Inspiring the moral and physical development of children and youth through participation in sport is the goal of the Olympic Movement. This goal is also consistent with the active living aims of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and goes far beyond the context of sport. It influences the process of learning culture and developing identity, how we answer questions such as who we are.

An Olympic-values education initiative, which brings school and community clubs together in an integrated approach, provides a unified and consistent message to young people about appropriate values and behaviour (Binder, 2007, p. 22).

This citation leads to further questions of interpretation. These values and subsequent behaviour can be termed as “fair play”. But what this means differs according to different cultural environments. How, for example, is fair play understood by people in different cultural surroundings? In German, the word “fair” remains untranslatable, which might suggest that fairness was not until recently part of German culture. The French expression “esprit de sport” does not really tally with the English “fair play”.

But there is one language which can serve impressively towards international communication and intercultural education and that is the language of sport. The significant symbols of sport are understandable to all. They can be recognized and experienced emotionally, intellectually and physically and they enable actors to confirm their identities.

Every human being possesses a number of identities: be it as a pupil at school, as a member of a sports club, as the youngest child in a family or, later, as a parent, teacher, doctor or colleague. And it is a basic human need – like eating and drinking – to confirm these identities. This fundamental social need or instinct must be satisfied. What is decisive is that the acknowledgement and the reinforcement of identity can only be maintained on the basis of the value and norm system of the surrounding society or social group. Since this value and norm system is reflected very clearly in sport, sport offers an almost unique opportunity for the acknowledgement and reinforcement of the identity.

There is no doubt that the Olympic Movement plays a major role with regard to the sport identity of the athletes. The Olympic Movement is responsible to some degree for the identity-formation potential of sport moving in the right direction. The identity of the athletes should no longer be an identity based on success at all costs. Success does not justify foul means and – contrary to the slogan in American high schools I quoted earlier on – it does matter how the game is played. Winning by any means is not the aim. The identity of sportsmen and sportswomen should be a fair play identity.

Therefore the Olympic Values Education Program of the IOC needs expansion and appropriate articulation in Olympic education projects and materials. The article “Olympic values education: evolution of a pedagogy” (Binder, 2012) features the implementation of the Olympic-related curriculum project “Be a Champion in Life”. Interestingly, ethical concepts from different cultural traditions, like South Africa or China, did correspond with fair play.

So it can be concluded: Sport based on fair play is an excellent possibility for intercultural education within the Olympic Movement and has been contributing positively to both better sport and better society. This process needs to be continued and intensified, and that is why the Olympic Movement is so important. With its values education mandate the Olympic Movement decides what sort of sport it wants to propagate.

Intercultural education within the Olympic Movement means learning and sharing Olympic values. There is no limitation and no alternative. As previously noted, through the specificity of sport, this can happen unequivocally. A picture says more than a thousand words.

In contrast to modern society, a complex structure that demands increasing virtuosity in role-playing and in which there is in many areas little scope for creating an identity, the significant symbols of sport label and classify social values and norms very clearly and visibly (Weiss, 2001, p. 401).

In sport, the injustice of the world is not disguised; rather, it becomes visible. Sport can function as a wonderful vehicle for intercultural communication and education. Learning by doing is a foundational methodology for teaching values in sport or physical education. In common sport contests the opponent becomes a partner, which serves towards the development of their mutual identities.

The annual IOA Session for Young Participants in Olympia is an appropriate example. Anecdotal evaluations from participants have been unanimous in being extremely positive about their theoretical and practical acquaintance with Olympic values. A former participant from Vienna made the remark: “This was the best experience in my life”. During my stay as a lecturer in Olympia in 2012 I witnessed the exceptional dancing performances as well as football, swimming and volleyball contests of participants from different corners of the planet. This social richness of cultural diversity was perfectly blended with sport activities, leaving me with memories I will long cherish.


Binder, D. (Ed.) (2007), Teaching Values. An Olympic Education Toolkit. A Programme of the International Olympic Committee, Lausanne.

Binder, D. (2012), “Olympic values education: evolution of a pedagogy”, Educational Review, 64 (3), pp. 275–302.

Calhoun, D. W. (1987), Sport, culture and personality (2nd Ed.), Champaign.

IOC (2013), Olympic Charter, Lausanne: IOC. Available online: http://www.olympic. org/Documents/olympic_charter_en.pdf, accessed on 1 April 2014.

Kidd, B. (1985), The Legacy of Pierre de Coubertin [unpublished paper], Vancouver, BC, National Olympic Academy of Canada.

Müller, N. (2004), Olympic Education: university lecture on the olympics, Barcelone, Olympic Studies Centre (CEO-UAB), International Chair in Olympism (IOC-UAB).

Vidony, C. & Ward, P. (2009), “Effects of fair play instruction on student social skills during a middle school sport education unit”, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 14 (3), pp. 285–310.

Weiss, O. (1996), “Media sports as a social substitution. Pseudosocial relations with sports figures”, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 31 (1), pp. 109–118.

Weiss, O. (2001), “Identity reinforcement in sport. Revisiting the symbolic interactionist legacy”, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 36 (4), pp. 393–405.

WEISS Otmar, "Possibilities and limitations of intercultural education within the Olympic Movement", in: K. Georgiadis(ed.), Olympic values: Respect for diversity, 54th International Session for Young Participants (Ancient Olympia, 15-29/6/2014), International Olympic Academy, Athens, 2015, pp.121-130.

Article Author(s)

Possibilities and limitations of intercultural education within the Olympic Movement
Prof. Dr Otmar WEISS
Visit Author Page

Related Posts

Olympism: The values of sport and the risks
Olympism: The values of sport and the risks

This is where it is necessary for science and ethics to be deployed together, so that the positive values of both sport and democracy can be promoted and protected, through good governance.

Olympic Games Challenges for the Youth
Olympic Games Challenges for the Youth

The Olympic Games have everything to do with challenging our youth to strive for excellence, be respectful, nurture good relationships, and have fun!

Articles & Publications


Article Author(s)

Possibilities and limitations of intercultural education within the Olympic Movement
Prof. Dr Otmar WEISS
Visit Author Page

Articles & Publications


Article Author(s)

Possibilities and limitations of intercultural education within the Olympic Movement
Prof. Dr Otmar WEISS
Visit Author Page