Military World Games Foster Friendship, Peace
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul. 21, 2011 Retired Italian Maj. Gen. Gianni Gola cannot recall how many times he has traveled to this famous party city.
Retired Italian Maj. Gen. Gianni Gola talks about the impact of the 5th International Military Sports Council's World Games being held July 16 to 24, 2011, in Rio de Janeiro. Gola is the former president of the International Military Sports Council and its current honorary president, and he was instrumental in bringing the games to Rio. DOD photo by Fred W. Baker III
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Sitting in a hotel overlooking the iconic Copacabana Beach, he laughs about it.
"I'm thinking of becoming an honorary citizen now," he jokes.
Along the sandy stretch outside, vendors peddle souvenirs, small huts sell cold beer, children build sand castles, and young and old jog along the winding trail as cool winter breezes sweep in from the coast.
It seems an unlikely venue for 7,000 military troops from around the world to descend upon and face their opponents toe-to-toe. But, by facing off here first, Gola said he believes the troops will not eventually see each other on opposite sides of a battlefield.
"Through sports we can bring together the soldiers of our nations [who otherwise would not meet]. And this is the only way. There is no other parallel organization," Gola said.
The 5th International Military Sports Council's World Games kicked off here July 16 in Olympic fashion, with more than 100 countries represented on the tracks, mats and courts.
Gola now serves as the honorary president of the council, after serving three four-year terms as its president and boasting a 45-year affiliation with the organization, first as an athlete.
On the surface, the games are a casual display of what actually is serious business in the political process of building cooperative relationships among some of the world's top militaries.
The United States, China, India, Iran, North Korea and others compete alongside much smaller militaries such as those of Suriname, Uzbekistan and Sri Lanka.
The United States has 141 troops from all of the services, including the Coast Guard, competing here. Officials here don't break the athletes down by service, but the Army and Navy make up the largest contingent of the group. Of the U.S. athletes, 79 are men and 62 are women.
The games offer more than 20 venues, including track and field, boxing, swimming, volleyball and basketball. It also features equestrian events, sailing, parachuting and orienteering. For the United States, the largest participation is in volleyball, with 23 athletes competing, followed by track and field and soccer, with 18 each. Fifteen U.S. troops are competing in swimming, 12 in basketball, 11 in the triathlon, nine each in parachuting and sailing, eight each in beach volleyball, taekwondo and judo, and two in the modern pentathlon.
On these playing fields, unlikely friendships will form between troops who, in other situations, would find themselves on the opposing sides of a demilitarized zone or, worse, on the battlefield.
Gola said he has seen it happen.
When he was in India in 2007 during the previous World Games, he said, the women’s soccer tournament final was between North Korea and Germany. North Korea won the match, and their counterparts from South Korea shared the sidelines and cheered the team on.
"They were there, and they were excited, and they were together," Gola said.
Later in the athlete villages, the troops would eat together because they spoke the same language, he said.
"When they go back, some of them will never have the [same] possibility in the future, because they are not allowed," Gola said. "I am sure that those guys will remember forever the possibility they had to have relations with athletes coming from other countries."
Brazil has opened its arms to the athletes competing in what officials here have dubbed the "Peace Games." Signs welcome them at the airport. Billboards promote the games along major highways. Thousands of local people have volunteered to serve as support staff, and the Brazilian military has dedicated much of its ranks to supporting the games.
The games are using the venues built for the 2007 Pan American games, but Brazil built new athlete villages specifically for these games.
This is the first time a South American country has hosted the traditionally European-sponsored games. In fact, Gola learned Spanish just so he could travel to South America in search of a host. Gola and other organization officials thought Brazil would be an ideal host because of its revitalized role as a leader on the continent.
Brazilian officials liked the idea of hosting the games because they wanted to be seen as a major contributor to the international peace process, Gola said.
"[By belonging to the International Military Sports Council] you demonstrate that you are sharing with 131 countries’ armed forces a common idea that through sport we can promote peace," he said.
In addition to these games held every four years, the organization also hosts as many as 20 championship games for individual sports annually around the world.
The current organization president, Col. Hamad Kalkaba Malboum, of Cameroon, said that while these games are operating at an Olympic level, it is not necessarily the athletes' talents that are the focus of the games.
"I think the spirit is the most important thing," he said. "If they have the talent, it can be discovered in other national competitions. We don't need to bring them necessarily here to discover the talent."
It is in the friendships that develop and the ideals that are perpetuated as the athletes return to their native countries, he said.
These games are different from more traditional military-to-military exercises, he noted, because there is the common bond of the sport. In warfighting games, an enemy always is in the scenario.
Here, he said, "we don't think enemy."
And the games provide a more intimate setting for the troops, who can share their experiences on training and competing, Malboum said. Relationships are forged at the start, he added, because in sports you must get close to the opponent to shake hands and compete. It is at this level that the friendships begin and then grow beyond July 24, when the games come to an end, he said.
"Then we spread that spirit, and it could bring understanding. It could bring tolerance. Then it could [lead to] accepting each other despite our differences of culture, of color, of environment," the colonel said.
And that is the path to true peace, he said.
"I think peace is not just the fact there is no war," Kalkaba said. "Peace is the individual feeling -- to agree with someone, to have goodwill, to share good spirit and brotherhood with someone. This is the start of peace."