This year, we were treated to the “sexiest Olympics opening ceremony ever,” according to Gisele Bundchen, Brazil native and supermodel. Not only was Gisele part of the opening but she promised “lots of nearly naked women doing the samba.” Perhaps no hosting city has summed up the dual physical and spiritual nature of humanity better than Rio, where the statue of Christ the Redeemer looms over the spectacle of Carnivale. Did anyone even notice Vanderlei de Lima lighting the awesome spiraling sun torch? I expect he’s used to being upstaged in his home country, for Gisele also tells us that “Brazil is where the female body is celebrated like no other place on earth.”
Which is why, perhaps, it was not such a surprise that each Olympian received 42 condoms as a welcoming gift from the Brazilian government. As one of my husband’s friends commented, the Olympics are only 18 days long. Forty-two? Those must be some real athletes. With all of the athletes on display in one of the most beautiful cities on earth, there is a real temptation to objectify people and just stare at the beautiful bodies. What is a good Catholic to do? Luckily, I am here to right the Olympic ship and remind us of the games’ higher purpose.
When the Olympic games were resurrected around the turn of the 20th century, it was to honor both physical achievement and moral character, with some Christian influence. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, one of the founders of the modern Olympic games, even borrowed the Olympic motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” from a Dominican priest friend. Coubertin anticipated the games would be a “program[me] of moral beauty” that would highlight the “aesthetics of sport.” He was also behind the emblem of the Olympic rings, which not only represents the colors of all nations’ flags but was inspired by the image of the vesica piscis – a symbol related to the “Jesus fish” sign of the early Christians and interlaced marriage rings. The Olympic medals themselves even give an unintentional nod to the belief that we are all the same before God. I didn’t realize that they are all silver on the inside. First and third place just have a coating of gold or bronze but the core is all the same.
Although today the Olympic games may seem to represent the single-minded pursuit of athletic excellence, the athletes’ stories often provide spiritual lessons for us as well. Perhaps the best Olympic moral example was depicted in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire (can you hear the Vangelis theme now?). Remember, boys running along the beach in a montage that looked like a Ralph Lauren underwear ad? The film followed the journeys of two English runners to the 1924 Paris Olympics. One athlete fought the demons of anti-semitism (Harold Abrahams) and the other was a minister devoted to God and his gift of running (Eric Liddell).
Liddell’s Olympic success in particular teaches several important lessons. He viewed his athletic prowess as the achievement of God’s will. He never talked about winning a gold medal or being the best. Although in real life his sister was very supportive, in the movie her character questioned Liddell’s motivation for running, his commitment to the church and their mission in China. His answer was that not to run would be to dishonor God, saying, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” I think this is a valuable lesson for us, not only on faith, but on discernment. Many of us, myself included, have a hard time hearing God’s will and discerning our purpose in life, no matter how many times we are told to sit still and listen. Have you ever thought about feeling God’s will? I think an interesting exercise for us all would be to fill in the blank: “When I _________, I feel God’s pleasure.”
Liddell was also a focused Christian and he knew what to put first. He refused to run the 100-meter event he was picked to win because it was held on a Sunday and his Christian convictions prevented him from running on the Sabbath. Although the timing in real life was different than the movie, in both versions Liddell sticks to his guns even though he faced strong pressure from the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic committee to compete. His faith unshaken, Liddell went on to win gold in the 400-meter hurdles, a race in which he was not expected to compete originally. After winning the gold, there were no Wheaties boxes or Nike endorsements. Liddell went back to the mission in China where he died in 1945, in a Japanese internment camp. That sacrifice stirs more awe in me than a gold medal.
So go on, enjoy Rio. We should admire the gifts from God on display and honor the personal sacrifices that have brought these athletes together. God made the beautiful women out there samba-ing, too. Let’s watch 18 days of exceptional humans feeling God’s pleasure. Let the athletes inspire us in body and in spirit. As Baron Coubertin said (in another line borrowed from a clergyman), “The most important thing is not to win but to take part!” This Olympic season, don’t just for the gold, go for God.