I'm always filled with a sense of melancholy when I watch the opening ceremony of the Olympics. It's a beautifulif sometimes over-the-topspectacle, filled with all those robust, attractive, and smiling athletes, from all manner of (and often warring) nations, smiling and laughing and having a wonderful time together. But there's always a twinge of sadness as I watch.
The subtext and supratext of the Olympics, of course, is world peace. We hear plenty, in the ceremony and by the announcers, about good will among the nations. It's never quite said so naively, but it surely is implied, that if we can get together like this for a couple of weeks every two years, maybe the nations can learn to turn their swords and into ice skates.
As Chicago Tribune sports columnist Rick Morrissey put it, "This was a night to be reminded that something like peace is possible, even if history would tell us otherwise. Even if history would laugh in our faces at our silly ideas." The cynical Morrissey feels compelled to add those lines about history because he knows that bit about peace sounds corny. But it's not silly. Any decent human being should wish for nothing less.
And certainly no Christian should. "Thy kingdom come " we pray regularly. Indeed, the hope of the Olympics is fundamentally a Christian hope.
Still there's that poignancy. On the one hand, we have an earnest Yoko Ono proclaiming, ""If one billion people in the world think peace, we'll have peace," followed by her late husband's song, "Imagine," whose second stanza says:
Imagine there's no countries,
It isn't hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace.
It's nationalism and religion that kill people, says John Lennon, and he's not far from the truth. But contra Ono's wishful thinking, we Christians believe that peace will not come until the King of Kings pressures the kings of the earth to relinquish their warring sovereignties, and the Elusive Presence abolishes religion because he dwells plainly in our midst (Rev. 21). But come it will.
On the other hand, we see signs of age-old moral bondage that make peace impossible for now. I've increasingly noticed something curious about all those beautiful athletesmore and more of them are bringing cameras into the stadium. And more and more are taking pictures of, well, themselves. In the same edition as the Morrissey column, the Chicago Tribune perfectly captured two Swiss athletes, cheek to cheek, while one held an outstretched camera pointed at their own smiling countenances.
This is harmless enough at one leveltwo athletes enjoying the moment. But their action, however innocent, symbolizes what the Olympics have become for so many athletesit's about them. An unmitigated example of this was reported the next day, when Shani Davis said he would not skate in the team speed skating event. "All in all, I know what's best for me," he said. "And if I feel that not skating the pursuit will do me better for the 1,000 meters, then I'm not going to do it."
And just below the picture of the Swiss athlete-photographers ran an article about a drive-by injustice. Zach Lund, the head-first sledder (and medal contender, many believed) was banned from these Olympics because he used an anti-balding product that contained a substance that is used to mask steroids. But this aggravating injustice merely highlights the fact that Olympic officials have to spend a lot of energy trying to thwart the genuine and willful greed of athletes who illegally use drugs to enhance their performance, who cheat to win the gold.
And yet. Alongside examples of moral decay, we witness moments of grace, beauty and courage. We watched a rare moment Monday night when these three virtues embraced in the fall and resurrection of Zhang Dan, the delicate 20-year-old skater from China. She and her partner, Zhang Hao, were trying to become the first pairs skaters ever to complete a successful quadruple throw salchow. Instead, on the fourth revolution, Zhang opened up early and fell to her knees, crashing into the ice with a frightening thud, sliding helplessly into the sideboards.
There was a collective gasp, followed by long minutes of anxiety. But she got up. And she skated again, trusting her partner and her knee to finish what they started. And they won the silver. Anybody who had dry eyes after that is as hardhearted as Pharaoh.
No, the Olympics is not about world peace just around the corner or even far away: it's about humanity as we find it now, both fallen and triumphant. It's a reminder of narcissism, injustice, and greed, as well as a celebration of discipline, courage, and grace. And thus my twinge of sadness, a Pauline poignancy (Rom. 8), that inner longing for liberty from bondage and decay, accompanied by an inward groan, as we eagerly await the closing ceremonies of the ambiguous game we call history.
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other Play Ball columns include:
Should We Ban Boxing? | The usual arguments against the "sweet science" cut many ways. (Oct. 28, 2005)
Something Noble and Good | Professional sports is often boring, but real sports is not. (May 13, 2005)
The Lovely Paradox of NFL Draft Day | It's an event of biblical proportionsand wisdom. (April 29, 2005)
Negotiating Sunday Sports | This culture war was lost long ago. Now what? (April 15, 2005)
The Prodigal Sports Fan | There is hope for the idolater. (April 08, 2005)
The Thirst of the 24/7 Fan | Understanding the idolatry in sports. (March 01, 2005)
March Madnesses | The layers of insanity know no endthank God. (March. 18, 2005)
Spectating as a Spiritual Discipline | For those who have eyes to watch, let them watch something more than highlight films. (March 11, 2005)
The Grace of Sports | If Christ can't be found in sports, he can't be found the modern world. (March 4, 2005)
Baseball Isn't Entertainment | The sooner we stop thinking sports are about the spectators, the more enjoyable the games will be. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)
Salt and Light in the Arena | It's going to take more than a few good Christians to clean up sports. (Feb. 18, 2005)
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