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Olympic truce tradition hard for Canada to swallow

Canada may be in an awkward "do as I say, not as I do" situation next month as it prepares a resolution for the United Nations General Assembly calling on all nations to observe an Olympic truce during the 2010 Winter Games.

Canadian soldiers continue to fight and die in war-torn Afghanistan, and 2010 organizers say they have no intention of asking that their country's own troops lay down their arms for the 17 days of the Olympics.

"We will not be entering into that kind of discussion with Canada," VANOC president John Furlong affirmed yesterday.

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The UN has traditionally passed an Olympic Truce resolution before each Summer and Winter Games since the early 1990s, echoing the practice of the ancient Greeks, who, according to legend, put aside their weapons every four years to compete peacefully at the Olympic Games of yore.

The country where the Games will be staged routinely introduces the resolution.

"The goal is to have all nations of the world support the truce, which is intended to promote a spirit of peace around the world during the period of the Games," Mr. Furlong said. "The whole idea is to promote peace, not just in the host country, but in other countries."

Canada, however, as one of the few host Olympic nations in recent years to be engaged in an actual conflict, is unlikely to observe any sort of ceasefire.

The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was the last occasion a country held an Olympics while taking part in military hostilities. The United States was then at war, also in Afghanistan, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. U.S. diplomats watered down their UN Olympic Truce resolution to focus on providing "a safe passage" to the world's athletes, rather than a call for peace.

Of course, Olympic controversy over foreign troops in Afghanistan is nothing new. The largest boycott in the history of the Olympics took place in 1980, when dozens of Western nations, including Canada and the United States, withdrew from the Moscow Summer Games to protest against the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

Now, it's the West's turn to fight in the impoverished Asian country, but this time, no one is boycotting anything.

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Asked whether Canada would take any initiative to ease hostilities there during the Olympics, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Alain Cacchione steered carefully away from the question.

"What I can tell you at this point in time is that, as host of the upcoming Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, Canada is pleased to bring forward the draft resolution entitled 'Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal,' " Mr. Cacchione responded in an e-mail.

He said the resolution would "promote the ideals of peace, understanding and fair play within the positive atmosphere of sport."

The concept of a modern-day Olympic Truce was launched by the International Olympic Committee in 1992. Despite some early successes (a temporary ceasefire in the bloody civil war in Sudan, and an arrangement to deliver humanitarian aid to the hard-hit population of strife-ridden Bosnia), the IOC now plays down expectations of meaningful peace gestures while the Games go on. Advocates stress instead the symbolic value of the truce.

"The world is a complex place," Mr. Furlong acknowledged. "But by bringing the world's attention to the truce, the whole idea is to promote the spirit of peace at home, and just try to get the world to focus on the value of this, at a time when it's needed.

"We've always believed, and people in sport believe, that when you're playing, you are not fighting."

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Late yesterday, VANOC officials released examples of recent truce initiatives by previous Olympic Organizing Committees.

For the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, for instance, a partnership with Unicef was struck to help vaccinate children in countries ravaged by conflict during the truce period, while organizers of the Athens Summer Olympics in 2004 added peace to the message of its torch relay.

Canada is due to introduce its Olympic Truce resolution at the UN General Assembly on Oct. 20. The wording of the motion is still being worked on. Those involved include representatives of Foreign Affairs, VANOC, the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee.

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