If you want to know how sport brings people together, look no further than the recent Euro 2016 football tournament and the surprise success of Iceland’s national team. An astonishing one in 12 of the country’s population travelled to France to cheer on their team. Of those left behind, TV figures show just 298 people across the entire country were watching a channel which was not showing Iceland play – and beat – England. It is hard to think of anything else which has that potential to unite a country.
But sport unites across borders as well as within them. No matter where we come from, it is our most common passion and language. It’s often how we first find connections with those from other countries when we meet them.
And major global sporting events make differences of nationality or language disappear. A remarkable two billion people – more than one in four people in the world – saw Usain Bolt win the Olympic 100 metres in the London 2012 Games. We can expect as many again watching to see if he can repeat the feat in Rio next month.
In a world increasingly scarred by hatred and division, the power of sport to unite us is to be treasured. So, too, is the Olympic Movement which, over many decades, has shown a surprising ability to help thaw relations and tackle prejudices.
At the heart of the appeal of the Olympic Movement are its values of respect, excellence and friendship. They symbolise not just the best of sport but also what’s needed for a more peaceful and contented world. It is why the Summer Olympic Games next month and the chance to remind us all of what we share has come at such a good time.
Central to these powerful ideals are the ideas of fair play, honesty and care for our own health. They have each been undermined by the latest controversies around the use of illegal drugs to enhance sporting performances.
There is, in fact, nothing new about athletes resorting to dubious methods to help them win. When the Games were first held in Ancient Greece, athletes were known to drink “magic potions” and eat exotic meats to give themselves an edge. But just because it has always happened does not mean we should accept it. Doping is now far more sophisticated and the disadvantage to “clean” athletes makes a mockery of the idea of fair competition, respect and excellence.
Unfortunately, Kazakh athletes have found themselves caught up in doping controversies. The authorities are determined to root out these practices and prevent this dark shadow hanging from over our athletes and their performances. Doping testing, for example, has been ordered for all the weightlifters travelling to Rio to demonstrate their absolute commitment to clean sport.
A zero-tolerance approach to doping will have the support of the millions of passionate sports fan here. They take real pride in the success our athletes have already achieved in a broad variety of sports at both the winter and summer games. As President Nursultan Nazarbayev told the country’s Olympic team when they met earlier this month, the whole nation will be following their progress over the coming weeks.
Our national passion for sport and support for the Olympic movement was also behind our decision to bid to host the Winter Olympic Games in 2022. Although we lost out to Beijing, the strong case we made for Almaty and the way we showed how our country embodies Olympic values won us many new friends.
We need all athletes to promote these values in Rio. We look to them, wherever they come from, to demonstrate respect, excellence and friendship. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, taught us that it was taking part and doing our best rather than winning which was the most important lesson sport could teach us. He also hoped the Olympic Torch would increase friendship and understanding among nations for the good of humanity. It is an ambition which has never been more needed and why all the athletes taking part in Rio, wherever they come from, go with our best wishes.