Philip Barker

One of the most important and symbolic parts of the Olympic Opening Ceremony looks set to change in Tokyo, and for that matter, the look of the Games might also need a late makeover if International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach gets his wish.

The report of the IOC Athletes’ Commission attracted most of the headlines for its strictures on the interpretation of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which deals with protests on the podium. It also called for "a moment of solidarity" at the Opening Ceremony.

It suggests that the traditional Olympic oath, taken by representatives of athletes, judges and coaches, should include "messaging on inclusion and non discrimination".

Introduced over a century ago at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, the wording had remained largely unchanged for almost 80 years, but has been significantly altered in the last 20.

The original oath had been proposed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, IOC President before the First World War. He believed it would "introduce into modern sport a spirit of joyful candour".

Coubertin recalled the ancient Olympics, where athletes would swear "an oath of loyalty and selflessness".

"The individual taking part in the Games had to be purified in some sense," Coubertin said. "We must get back to something similar. We must do so or we will see the beginnings of decline in our modern sports."

The wording of the Olympic oath has changed considerably over the years ©Getty Images
The wording of the Olympic oath has changed considerably over the years ©Getty Images

At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, American star athlete Jim Thorpe won pentathlon and decathlon gold.

It then came to light that he had received a small amount of money for playing little league baseball. He was stripped of his medals and banned by American sporting authorities, a lead followed by the IOC.

Coubertin later reflected: "How can one think that for an instant that if he had been called upon to swear upon his country’s flag he would have run the risk of swearing a false oath? "Not only would that have disqualified him as a sportsman it would have remained a mark against his honour throughout his life."

At the 1920 Games in Antwerp, fencer Victor Boin grasped the flag of Belgium, surrounded by the other Flagbearers.

The words he spoke in French were translated as: "We swear that we will take part in the Olympic Games in a spirit of chivalry, for the honour of our country and for the glory of sport."

His arm was raised in the "Olympic Salute", a gesture repeated by subsequent oath takers in the interwar years.

Unfortunately, it did rather resemble another salute extensively used at the time in Germany and Italy.

By the 1948 London Games, veteran hurdler Don Finlay, a wing commander in the Royal Air Force, simply raised his hand.

"We swear that we will take part in the Olympic Games, in loyal competition, respecting the regulations which govern them, and desirous of participating in them, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the honour of our countries, and for the glory of sport," he said.

There was no explicit reference to amateurism, even though this had been the raison d’etre for the oath in the first place.

An Olympic salute was common at Opening Ceremonies in the first half of the 20th century ©Getty Images
An Olympic salute was common at Opening Ceremonies in the first half of the 20th century ©Getty Images

It was not until 1956 at the Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo that Alpine skier Giuliana Minuzzo took the oath and also became the first woman to have a speaking part at an Opening Ceremony. A decade and a half later, long jumper Heidi Schuller of West Germany took the oath at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich.

At the Sapporo Winter Olympics earlier that year, ski jumping official Fumio Asaki became the first judge to step up to the stage to swear an oath of impartiality.

This had been proposed as early as the 1950s. IOC vice-president Armand Massard "raised the question of the advisability of causing the judges and referees who wish to officiate at the Olympic Games to take the same Olympic oath as that required of the athletes".

Massard’s suggestion had come after Erik von Frenckell, President of the Helsinki 1952 Olympics Organising Committee, had spoken of certain "scandalous cases" and International Boxing Association President (AIBA) Emile Gremaux admitted "certain difficulties" in boxing.

Even so, the oath did not prevent further judging scandals, just as drug cheats have disregarded the athletes' oath.

The 1980s were a time of political tension and in March 1983, when the IOC Session met in Delhi, President Juan Antonio Samaranch "recommended that the athlete taking the oath at the Opening Ceremony of the Games should henceforth swear on the Olympic Flag and not the flag of his country".

At the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, oath taker Bojan Krizaj, a skier, was the first to grasp the Olympic Flag.

Four years later in Seoul, Son Mi-Na from women’s handball and basketball player Heo Jae both grasped the distinctive silk Olympic handover flag to take the oath.

In those days, the oath was taken after the Olympic cauldron had been ignited and this was the case up to and including the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

Then in Sydney came a significant alteration to the wording of the oath.

Three oaths were merged into one at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang ©Getty Images
Three oaths were merged into one at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang ©Getty Images

In the wake of the Salt Lake City bribery scandal in 1998, the IOC’s reforming 2000 Commission prescribed "correct communication of the Olympic values and ideals" and insisted that the oath "must include a statement concerning drug free sport".

At Sydney 2000, Australian hockey captain Rechelle Hawkes spoke the new words.

"There was a mention of doping and drugs in there," Hawkes said. "I personally believe that it was a really good addition to the oath because that's what we should aspire to as Olympic athletes. Those particular words should resonate with athletes. I was more than happy for those words to be included."

Then three years ago in Pyeongchang, a further change was made to the way the oath was spoken.

An IOC statement said "these three oaths will be merged into one, considerably shortening this segment of the Ceremony, and athletes will recite the oath on behalf of the three groups".

There were three oaths because of the inclusion of a pledge for coaches. The entourage surrounding an athlete had been widely discussed at the 2009 IOC Congress in Copenhagen.

The wording for coaches was introduced at the first Youth Olympics held in 2010. It was then incorporated into the Olympic ritual at London 2012.

For Tokyo, the suggested wording is: "We promise to take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules and in the spirit of fair play, inclusion and equality.

"Together we stand in solidarity and commit ourselves to sport without doping, without cheating, without any form of discrimination. We do this for the honour of our teams, in respect for the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, and to make the world a better place through sport."

This will be translated into Japanese.

It would not come as any great surprise if there were joint oath takers, particularly as the IOC has encouraged teams to have both male and female flag bearers.

Tokyo 2020 will also probably have to make a late change to their stadium decorations known as the "look".

It is usual for the words of the Olympic motto "Citius Altius Fortius" (faster, higher, stronger) to be displayed in venues.

In March, Bach proposed a modification which added the word "together", for which he suggested the Latin communis.

Although this has yet to be approved by the full session, The Olympic Channel has already launched a video stream entitled Faster Higher Stronger- Together.

A proposal from IOC President Thomas Bach to change the Olympic motto to include the word together received the backing of the Executive Board last month ©IOC
A proposal from IOC President Thomas Bach to change the Olympic motto to include the word together received the backing of the Executive Board last month ©IOC

The classic original was coined by Father Henri Didon, a Dominican monk at a prize giving ceremony in March 1891, at the Ecole Albert-Le Grande in Arcueil, near Paris.

Coubertin related how Didon had "suddenly used these three competitive adjectives. He told them, 'here is your watchword - Citius Altius Fortius!"

"Today this resounding appeal echoes over the youth of all countries. Exceptional prowess is the key for any general activity," added Coubertin.

Coubertin added his own interpretation.

"He is able to cultivate effort for effort’s sake, to seek out obstacles and always to aim higher than the level he must achieve," he said.

Coubertin described Didon as "my illustrious friend". Didon supported the Olympic Movement at its outset and attended the 1896 Games in Athens and the 1897 IOC Congress in Le Havre.

Many years later, Paul Martin of Switzerland, a five-time Olympian who had won 800 metres silver in 1924, examined the meaning of the motto.

Citius was "fast not only in the race but with a quick and vibrant mind as well", while Altius meant "higher, not only towards a coveted goal but also towards the uplifting of the individual".

Fortius was "not only more courageous in the struggles on the field of play, but also in life", according to Martin.

Now Bach’s plan for a modification is gathering momentum after it was given approval by the IOC Executive Board and the support of the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee.

Perhaps the only dissent will come from language scholars over the precise word that will be used in the Latin form of the motto.