I love seasons…I need seasons. It must be part of my spiritual makeup. Perhaps this is why I love sports so much. They are seasonal. Having lived in places as diverse as southern Mississippi and northern California, I have become accustomed to erratic or invisible seasonal changes. You can’t rely on a lengthy spring or fall in Mississippi were the weather simply vacillates between hot and humid and not hot and not humid. I am not necessarily complaining, but there are no consistent high-heat summers or bitterly cold winters here in the Bay Area. So when mother nature balks, sports seasons help enhance the feeling of transition that I have experienced in more seasonal environments. I may not know that Fall is approaching here in the Bay by looking at the weather forecast, but I can definitely tell that change is in the air when pre-season football games start airing on television. I appreciate the yearly changes from football to basketball to baseball and back to football, and unlike environmental seasons, sports seasons can, for quite some time, overlap giving us the best of two, and sometimes three, worlds. But I also appreciate the more infrequent seasons as well, specifically the Olympics.
As all of you are no doubt aware, this year’s Olympics have been more controversial than most with host nation China’s human rights violations, oppression of Tibet, and involvement in Sudan. Many of my fellow students are protesting the Olympics by refusing to watch. I understand and respect their decision. I questioned what response I would make. In the end, my love of sports and my belief in their ability to unite us (even though they can often divide us) won out. I also knew that there could be more effective ways to respond to the crisis than whether or not I tuned in to men’s archery or women’s water polo. The spotlight on China has made me more conscious of their role in world politics and of our increasing reliance on their exported goods. Perhaps a conscious effort to avoid purchasing products made in China would be a more suitable, ethical response. At the same time, when NBC analysts bemoan China’s ills, they sound similar to some shortcomings here in the United States. We too know the reality of a small percentage of society controlling the majority of its resources. We too are familiar with questionable foreign policy decisions. I am thus reminded of Jesus’ assertion that we should remove the plank from our own eye before worrying about the speck in another’s.
But back to the Olympics. Quite frankly, I am so glad that I decided to watch the Olympics. Three days into the two week long event and we have already witnessed mind-blowing personal and team accomplishments. Many of us might be close to Michael Phelps overdose, but the amazing comeback by Jason Lezak in the final leg of the men’s 4 x 100 relay on Sunday night might be just as memorable as Phelps’ gold medal total. Last night, a discounted U.S. mens gymnastic team put together a Bronze-winning performance that, to them, must have felt like gold. Synchronized diving…are you kidding me?! Few sports so effectively justify the sports as art argument.
The Olympics, while not ever free from athletic and political controversies, are a welcome break form the professional sports divas that we have to tolerate year round. This is not to say that all professional athletes are jerks or that all Olympians are saints. Yet there is something slightly more honest, pure, or innocent about a gymnastic, water polo, or swimming competition that rarely, if ever, makes the highlight reels on SportsCenter, save for once every four years. There is a particular excitement and joy in watching many of these athletes revel in the attention and rise to the occasion both individually and collectively. There seems to be a joy and pride from some of these athletes that is not tarnished by contract negotiations or boasts of guaranteed money (though I am perfectly aware that some of them reap great endorsement rewards).
In college, working as an assistant youth minister, the youth director and I tried to broaden our students’ theological worldview beyond the conservative messages they traditionally heard in other places. One of our goals was to dispel the divisive distinction between the sacred and the profane. We wanted to do away with the idea that “positive emotions” experiences at a worship service like joy, rapture, praise, etc. were somehow higher than or better than similar emotions experienced elsewhere. For the athletes in our group, we questioned their desire to play and compete and the emotions they felt on the field or the court. We wanted them to see that the joy and excitement they felt on the field also came from God and that to embrace them, to participate fully in them, and to compete fairly to the best of their ability could also be seen as a form of worship. In a sense, they could be free to participate more fully and to excel in or at least enjoy a particular sport beyond their wildest imaginations. We constantly reminded them of the words of Paul, “In God we live and move and have our being.”
There’s a VISA commercial playing during the Olympics in which Morgan Freeman narrates and speculates that we route for Olympic athletes not because of the jersey they wear or the country they represent but because “they are human and we are human and when they succeed, we succeed.” A romantic idea that, especially as some of us are munching on popcorn and sipping on a cold beer while watching these athletes work their hearts out. But I get what the commercial is saying. However, it might be easier to say that the joy and excitement we feel in watching these events can link us with other fans and even the athletes who experience a similar joy and excitement, albeit in bigger doses.
Success in the pool, in the gym, or on the track…success embodied by healthy, respectful competition…is difficult to translate into real life. As the situation between Russia and Georgia makes perfectly clear, the Olympics do not bring world peace with them. Who knows what route China will take once the curtain closes on these events and preparations for 2012 move to London. The Olympics do, however, offer up unique opportunities for connection, discussion, and relationships that, unfortunately, do not happen as often as we would like. They also provide us with seasonal opportunities to watch and vicariously enjoy the thrill of competition.