Philip Barker

Stevie Wonder and Peter Gabriel have both sung about peace at Olympic ceremonies through John Lennon's Imagine and, in the last few days, the United Nations passed a resolution calling for a period of truce during next year's Games in Tokyo.

The resolution, instigated by the Japanese Government and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was entitled: "Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal."

The resolution ran to five pages.

"It urges Member States to observe the Olympic Truce individually and collectively, throughout the period from the seventh day before the start of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad, until the seventh day following the end of the XVI Paralympic Games, to be held in Tokyo in 2020."

Additionally, it calls on states "to ensure the safe passage, access and participation of athletes, officials and all other accredited persons taking part".

While the sporting performances were outstanding at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics,  Barbara Rotraut-Pleyer also made her debut ©Getty Images
While the sporting performances were outstanding at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Barbara Rotraut-Pleyer also made her debut ©Getty Images

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told the UN: "With the adoption of the Olympic Truce resolution, you are supporting the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as this true symbol of peace in our world." He continued a tradition supported by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman who served as IOC President during the formative years of the Olympics. 

In 1935, a few months before the Berlin Olympics, Coubertin made a radio broadcast.

"I would heartily welcome the idea of the belligerents in the time of war interrupting their fight for a time in order to celebrate the Games and display the strength of their muscles in a loyal and chivalrous manner."

Many Olympians have made gestures of international understanding, but perhaps the most memorable demonstration in support of peace lasted only a few seconds.

It came in 1952 at the Helsinki Olympics, when a hitherto unknown woman burst onto the official dias during the Opening Ceremony and attempted to address the crowd.

Described as a "peace apostle", she was rapidly hustled away by officials and, briefly, sent to a psychiatric hospital for examination.

The official report described this as an "unexpected intermezzo".

Her name was Barbara Rotraut-Pleyer, a 23-year-old student who had grown up in Nazi Germany.

Her father Kleo had been an officer in the German military who died on the Eastern front.

It was said that Barbara first became aware of the Olympic Games in 1948.

In 1951, she crossed the border to visit the World Youth Student Games in East Berlin. There, she tried to make a speech. Instead, she was briefly taken into custody by  East German authorities.

She also tried to address a world peace congress in Paris, but was again unsuccessful, so she laid plans to travel to Helsinki to try again at the Olympic Games.

At the time, the world was gripped by tension. The Second World War was over, but a "cold" war had taken its place.

There was very real fighting in Korea, where the superpowers offered their backing to the North and South, respectively.

The Helsinki Games were to see German athletes return to the Olympic "family".

The Soviet Union also took part for the first time, although competitors from the Eastern bloc nations were housed separately in a special village, complete with a portrait of Soviet leader Stalin.

Eight days before the Games began, Rotraut-Pleyer set out for Helsinki.

It was said that she hitchhiked with only 10 pfennigs in her pocket and a rucksack containing a long white robe.

As she made her way towards the Finnish capital, Olympic enthusiasts helped her with food and travel.

Heavy rain fell on Opening Ceremony day and the cinder track glistened as 69 teams made their entry to the stadium.

After the arrival of the Olympic flame, Archbishop Ilmari Salomies prepared to deliver a special prayer in Latin.

"Unite all the nations of the world with ties of peace and unanimity. Teach us across dividing frontiers, across languages, world outlooks, cultures and religions to understand each other, to tolerate and love each other."

Before he was able to speak, Rotraut-Pleyer ran through a gap in the fence and around the track.

Some of the Finnish spectators believed they were watching Armi Kuusela, who had won the first "Miss Universe" contest earlier that summer.

Commentators on Finnish radio described it as "a complete mystery".

The late Neil Nugent, a bronze medal-winning hockey player with Great Britain, recalled the moment.

"My abiding memory is that everybody was there, marching around the arena with their lovely uniforms and flags and suddenly, despite all the security, a vestal virgin in flowing robes that you could see through, was at the head of the procession. Everybody was saying who is she, where did she come from?"

At the  podium, she uttered the Finnish word "Ystavat", meaning "friends", before officials moved in. 

Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe has once more reiterated the importance of the Olympic Truce ©Getty Images
Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe has once more reiterated the importance of the Olympic Truce ©Getty Images

In the words of the official report, Erik Von Frenckell, IOC member in Finland and organising supremo "tactfully escorted her from the field".

Later, Von Frenckell told reporters "she was of course very excited and shaking all over".

Rotraut-Pleyer underwent a brief psychiatric examination by Finnish authorities.

She described herself as "an idealist for peace".

The following day she was flown home to Hamburg.

"News of the arrival of the redheaded girl quickly spread around the airport and crowds gathered at the entrance," said news-agency reports.

Instead of the white dress, she was now dressed in black. Police hustled her away through a back exit.

Her moment had been fleeting, but unforgettable.

"Although she had only spoken the first word of her speech, she had nevertheless understood the feelings of many people," wrote  distinguished German historian Volker Kluge much later.

"The fear of a third world war, and in all probability an atomic exchange, was especially great."

Kluge also discovered that, with the help of fellow students, she had translated her speech into six languages. "However well intentioned, even reading the German version would have lasted four minutes, with the other six languages almost half an hour," said Kluge.

The minutes of the next IOC session in Mexico City included a note.

"It has been decided that in future, no political demonstrations will be allowed during the Games, either in the stadium or on the sports grounds."

Much later, a similar phrase was incorporated into the Olympic Charter.

Rotraut-Pleyer continued her peace campaign. She joined the West German women's peace group, ventured again into East Germany and travelled to the peace conference in Hiroshima. She also visited China, Vietnam and was welcomed to Indonesia by President Sukarno.

Later, she made regular pilgrimages to Mount Sinai and, in the latter part of her life, became known by the name "Sinai". Two years after her death in the year 2000, the Finnish Olympic Committee staged a special event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Olympics.

Many of the competitors from 1952 joined the celebrations. There was even a "peace angel", which this time was played by a Finnish actress, Lauri Malmivaara.

The Olympic Movement had now also taken action to promote peace and the concept of an "Ekecheiria", as the truce was known in the days of Ancient Greece.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch was the first to formally request a truce at the UN. His example was followed both by Jacques Rogge and Bach.

An international Olympic truce Center (IOTC) was also established in Athens.

"We have been speaking about the truce for so many years. This can be the start of something special," said Dr Fani Palli-Petralia, former Greek Minister for Youth and Culture and now IOTC vice-president.

In 2016, some 60 soldiers took part in a truce walk which began in Elis in the Peloponnese. In a special ceremony, they symbolically removed their guns to show desire for a world without weapons.

The following morning they began their journey at dawn. Their arrival in Ancient Olympia that evening coincided with festivities to celebrate the lighting of the Olympic torch for Rio de Janeiro.

The event was organised in conjunction with the IOTC and many hope for similar events in the future.