In the inner courtyard of a Mussolini-era Italian army barracks, there is a neat rank of Chinese soldiers – about 30 of them standing to attention in two parallel lines, staring ahead across the yard at the Alps beyond. All around them are groups of other nation’s troops, milling about, waiting for orders. There are Russians in large grey fur hats, tall Latvians in desert colours and Swedes in crisp dark blue.
A small group of Lebanese soldiers is discreetly eyeing up the women in the Norwegian group. Four Albanians are leaning against a wall, surveying the scene. A lone Iranian looks bemused.
Then a Russian steps forward, pulls out his camera and takes a photo of one of his fellow soldiers. And that’s it. The ice starts to break. Some giggling Chinese female soldiers fall out of line, and one by one go running up to the Latvians and throw their arms around them while posing for pictures. Then they run off and do the same with the Americans. Meanwhile, the Lebanese start handing out key rings made from slices of wood cut into the shape of their national symbol, the cedar tree. The Pakistanis pull tie pins with their national flag from their pockets.
Eventually, an officer from the Alpini (the Alpine branch of Italy’s army) with a loudspeaker gets everyone to line up behind banners bearing their country’s name. And the multi-coloured mini armies from four continents parade into town in a kind of military fashion show.
They are all together in the forested mountains of Valle d’Aosta, the small northern Italian region bordering France and Switzerland, to compete in the Winter Military World Games, a kind of Vancouver Olympics for soldiers. There are some familiar events – the giant slalom and the biathlon. And there are traditional military mountain activities such as ski mountaineering and ski orienteering. This is a much smaller, more low key affair but there’s still a flame and lots of medals and posing on podiums. But unlike the Olympics, this really is not really about winning.
These games are organised by the International Military Sports Council (CISM), founded in 1948 in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the modest aim of using sport to work towards universal peace. Under the motto of “friendship through sport” 132 countries have joined CISM since then, among them North Korea and South Korea, Serbia and Albania, India and Pakistan, America, Russia and China. They have already held four summer games meetings since 1995. And every year, they hold around 20 smaller contests for specific winter sports. “We cannot think that sport can stop wars,” says the Italian CISM president, Major General Gianni Gola, in a pep-talk to a gathering of sleepy senior officers (some tapping their BlackBerries) the night before the games kick off. “But we need to see if sport can play a role.”
Fewer countries attend the winter games, as much of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East don’t have much snow. And Britain and Australia are conspicuously absent from the CISM club. But the 41 countries converging in these Italian mountains create a unique series of encounters. The Americans and the Russians find themselves sharing a bus from the airport. The Belarussian head of mission gets talking to his Indian counterpart in the sauna of their hotel. The French lend the Lebanese an iron they need to wax their skis.
The general feeling is that it’s the politicians who cause the problems between countries – these military people are all pretty much alike. “The Americans – I love them,” says Siamak Amiri, the Iranian team leader waiting for his man at the bottom of the slalom run. He wears a T-shirt with USA across the chest to show it. “People look at us strangely. They think ‘Iranian Revolutionary Guard – they must be strange’. But we are not. We are just like them.”
Officially, talk of politics is banned at this event. The closest it gets is the odd jibe, which some allow themselves out of earshot of the adversaries they are referring to. “We can talk to the Serbs,” says on Albanian mountaineer. “It’s OK. And we already beat them,” he says with a grin. “In the free climbing competition,” he adds. Otherwise you might wonder if he is referring to the victory of the Albanian majority in Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. “I can’t see the Indians here today,” says the Pakistani chief of mission with a grin. “Perhaps they saw we were here and were too scared to turn up.”
On the slopes, uniforms are switched for ski gear and the teams work quietly alongside each other like any skiers in a competition. They leap and stretch and swing their arms and swivel their hips together to warm up. The richer teams have brand new Gore-Tex jackets and Lycra one-pieces emblazoned with their country name. But most have nothing on their ski clothes that identifies their nationality. “It’s a budget thing,” one of the Romanians explains. The Serbian biathlon contestant is using a 40-year-old telescope to adjust his aim while his US counterparts have the latest hi-tech equipment. Italy, France, China and Norway scoop most of the medals, but they all seem to be loving every minute.
There are Italian security guards everywhere but at one race there is also Alpine organ music blaring out to jolly things along. The atmosphere is so relaxed it’s hard to believe this has anything to do with the military. It’s almost as if this is about forgetting you are a soldier. The main thing here is being an athlete. And some of those present are world-class ones. Military athletes picked up 58 medals at the Vancouver Olympic games. In Europe, since the end of the Second World War, armies have used some of their country’s best skiers to protect their mountain borders. And although that’s no longer their focus, in countries such as Italy, France, Norway and Switzerland, joining the army is still the best way for many to get the training and the funding to become a world-class skier. Different countries demand different levels of commitment to ordinary military duties. And in the poorer countries there is no special sports training at all. For many here, the military games are a welcome relief from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, or a “holiday” from the life of a soldier in a troubled or isolated country.
“We have professional athletes in our army,” says Christian Persicot, head of the French team. “The Lebanese team fight wars. That’s what they do.” When he discovered the Lebanese team had no telescope for tuning their rifles for the biathlon, he lent them a piece of French kit. “If we did not help them they might not hit a single target,” he says outside a Portacabin where his group prepares their cross-country skis for the biathlon race.
But it’s off the piste that this experiment in international relations gets really interesting. The young military athletes gather together for dinner on the first night in the mess hall of a barracks. Some are tired (the Belarussians and the Romanians have spent nearly three days in a bus to get here). All are hungry. And the Valdostano wine is flowing (except on the table where Iran, Pakistan and Morocco are drinking water).
A few officers who’ve met at previous, smaller sporting events venture to each other’s tables and shake hands. But most of these athletes are young and some have never left their country before. Language is the biggest barrier. There are not enough “terps” as the Americans call their interpreters in the battlefield.
Naturally countries end up sitting according to their geographical and linguistic proximity. So the Serbians share their table with some Russians and the Belarussians are on the next table. There is a particularly blond part of the room where most of the Scandinavians seem to be sitting and the Chinese have annexed a whole corner of the canteen with their large delegation. All are glancing around, sneaking a look at each other from time to time. And as the food and wine goes down, they get braver. The Italian Alpini start trying on the fur hats of the young Romanians sitting near them. A young member of the Carabinieri starts chatting up their blond interpreter. But then she has to go because they have to be up early tomorrow for the next competition.
The colonels and generals leading their teams don’t need to go to bed so early. In the day, they rest, take saunas and watch their times. At night, they dress up in their uniforms for grand dinners with speeches and local dishes (it’s deer stew, wild boar, fontina cheese and walnut sauce around here) or they head out into town to try out the bars.
As one Eastern European team leader puts it: “For the heads of mission it’s just drinking. We start in the morning. Wine. Then more wine. I had three bottles last night.” But there is serious discussion here too. In a meeting room in the centre of Aosta, the heads of mission (most of them former athletes) discuss sport and conflict and how armies worldwide could make sport a more official part of their strategy.
Already, it’s well known that kicking a football around with the kids in a war zone can do more to reduce tensions than any amount of politicking or showing of force. Sport is an essential tool for both combat troops and peacekeepers. When Haiti’s president fled amid an armed uprising in 2004, UN peacekeepers fought the gangs in the slums for two days before they found they could pacify them with footballs.
Today, sport is being used more and more. “We are trying to train our people to bring locals to sport so that they do not get their minds polluted by the Taliban,” says Pakistan’s Air Commodore Hasan Kamran Zammarud sipping an espresso from a tiny plastic cup during a break. But because of the security issues of playing with the enemy – or the potential enemy – sport is not officially part of any country’s military strategy. “If I told a commander he must use sport, he may consider that is something he needs to decide on the ground,” says Brigadier General David Martin from Canada.
But using sport is not just about winning the hearts and minds of locals. Some countries are using sport science, equipment and training techniques to build up the mental and physical strength of their own soldiers. The Danes, according to another CISM official, have recently started using a pentathlon obstacle course at their base in Helmand, realising that these days, with the 37kg packs that soldiers carry in hot and tough terrain, they need to train their soldiers to be athletes.
Diplomacy though is perhaps the area with the most potential. The UN has already recognised the importance of the role of the International Olympic Committee and of the CISM in developing peacekeeping techniques. “Sport is useful for peace,” says Lt Gen José Elito Carvalho Siqueira, former UN peacekeeping chief in Haiti. “The irony is that sport is the closest activity to war.”