Theology and the Olympics

It has been a couple week since I last posted something–I’ve been travelling, other things have been happening, and, most importantly, the Olympics kicked off in Rio!  Now, I love the Olympics, especially the Summer Olympics–I always have, and this year there are some great stories.  [Of course, there are great stories every year–that’s a hallmark of the games.]  Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Usain Bolt–these are amazing athletes and amazing human beings, with stories of triumph over hardship, perseverance and dedication.  And, of course, this year there is the Refugee Team, made up of athletes who surely won’t stand on any podium, but who compete as a testimony to the human spirit of survival and triumph, and remind us of all those who are nationless and homeless, and who need our continued advocacy and support.
There are, of course, other stories, too:  the Russian doping scandal that kept many Russian athletes [including the entire Paralympic delegation] home; and the economic and environmental scandals in Brazil that made many question the use of money on stadiums, rather than infrastructure and education.  The Zika virus has kept many tourists away, too, so it is not clear at the end of it all how Brazil will come out financially.

The reality is, the Olympics spotlights humanity as a whole–the best of who we are, and some of the worst.  It’s not all pretty, and some of it is downright ugly.  And, there are the tragedies, too–if you have a strong stomach, you might want to watch the video of French gymnast Samir Ait Said breaking his leg horribly during his vault.  (Or, maybe not–it really is gruesome.)  That’s just perhaps the worst tragedy of many:  there are so many athletes who make one tiny mistake and end their Olympic dream; and there are others who do the very best they can and miss the podium by mere fractions of seconds.  And, in every single race, every single event, every single sport, someone has to come in last.  I wonder how that feels.

All of this matters to me as a theologian, of course, because it helps me think about human greatness and human frailty, the amazing goodness of human bodies–and how God blesses us in and through them, and how beautiful it is when the human family comes together from all around the globe in competition, in affection and in concord. The games show me grace and forgiveness, grief and consolation.  In these days we learn new names, new faces, and something new about a wide variety of countries we rarely think about and perhaps cannot even find on a map.  

There are lots of other things to do in these 2 1/2 weeks, and maybe you think watching the Olympics is a waste of time.  I suggest otherwise.  Watching even a bit of the games–both the signature events and the more obscure sports–will give you fresh insight into the power of the human spirit, the diversity of human physical gifts and abilities, and the wondrous power of teamwork and friendship.  Pope Francis called the Olympic athletes “messengers of good will and true sporting spirit.”  They most certainly are, and it is amazing to see them in action.

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