The London Olympics take place this year. Those seven simple words send a shiver down the spines of many of us. After almost seven years of waiting since Jaques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Association uttered those life-changing words: ‘The Games of the XXX Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the city of London’ on 6 July 2005, the Games are finally almost upon us.
While the Games take place in London, they will dominate our TV schedules during the summer of 2012 – Olympics 29 July to 12 August and Paralympics 29 August to 9 September 2012 – even in Wales! And, of course, two of the football games will be played at the Millennium Stadium.
But is there a Christian perspective on the Olympics? You have probably heard the joke about tennis in the Bible, Joseph served in Pharaoh’s courts or that the football team Solomon supported was ‘Queen of the South’ (1 Kings 10). But has the Bible really anything to say about sport?
Sport in the Bible
The God of the Bible reveals Himself as interested in all human activity, including sport. God is to be worshipped, not just on Sunday morning but all week – 24/7. It was God who created people and made them able to run, jump, kick and catch. Sport is simply organised play in which we have the opportunity to use the talents that God has given us. Should our relationship with God not be as relevant when we are playing or watching sport as when we are in church?
In the New Testament almost all the references to sport are to Greek athletic contests. Paul, in particular, often makes reference to the games and to competition. He also spotted clear parallels between Christianity and sport, and felt that Christians could take lessons for Christian living from the experience of the athletes of the day.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul calls attention to the vigorous training of the athlete. The Christian is challenged in 9:24–27 to follow the example of the athlete and to strive for the crown which lasts:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
It is important to understand that Paul is not teaching us about sport, simply using an analogy to teach his readers how to grow as Christians.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin was the father of the modern Olympics. Speaking at a banquet in London for the members of the International Olympic Committee who were attending the 1908 Olympics, he said: ‘The importance of these Olympiads is not so much to win as to take part… The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well.’ Those words have become effectively an Olympic motto.
What is less well known is that de Coubertin was inspired in his thinking by a sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania. The Bishop asked:
If England be beaten on the river or America outdistanced on the racing path, or that American [sic] has lost the strength which she once possesses. Well, what of it? The only safety after all lies in the lesson of the real Olympia – that the Games themselves are better than the race and the prize. St Paul tells us how insignificant is the prize. Our prize is not corruptible but incorruptible and though only one may wear the laurel wreath, all may share the equal joy of the contest. All encouragement therefore be given to the exhilarating – I might also say soul-saving – interested [sic] that comes in active and fair and clean athletic sports.
It is important to understand the pressure which Olympians will feel when they compete in the 2012 Games. There is the pressure to do justice to yourself and all the training and sacrifices of the past four (or more) years and the sacrifices of friends and family. There will be the added pressure of the home crowd and what the nation expects. The hopes of the nation may rest heavily on an athlete’s shoulders.
Rower Debbie Flood expressed such sentiments after winning a second silver medal – or losing a second gold medal in the 2008 Olympics:
I got a silver medal in Athens in 2004 and since then I have trained four years six or seven days a week, two or three sessions a day all for a six minute race in Beijing! We came second again. It was a great disappointment not to get a gold medal, especially as we led for three quarters of the race. But I never pray to win. I always pray that I will be able to do my best in any race. I do not think it was God’s fault that we lost or that I should expect to win just because I am a Christian.
Engaging with this community
There will be a team of chaplains available to support the athletes in the Olympics and Paralympics, including some international chaplains and those with ongoing relationship with athletes, who will, as a result, be more open to talk to them.
The Olympic Charter guarantees freedom of religion and this is generally interpreted as the provision of a religious centre as a place for private or corporate worship in the style and manner the individual is accustomed to. Formal services are held at set times of the day as well as the individual pastoral support that the chaplains offer.
The Olympics will give the Christian community a wonderful opportunity to engage with the community. More Than Gold has been established to help churches ‘make the most of the 2012 Games’. More Than Gold has a programme of activities under the following categories: outreach, resources, service and hospitality.
There are some thirty-five Christian ministries in the UK which work in sport (visit uksportsministries.org for details). The largest of these is Christians in Sport, which reaches the world of sport for Christ by helping churches in their outreach to sportspeople and supporting church members to live out their faith in their sports clubs. One important initiative to help churches in the Olympic year is the 2012 Christians in Sport Sports Quiz; an interactive, multimedia sports quiz with a ten minute talk on Christianity relevant to sportspeople. (Visit www.christiansinsport.org.uk or follow @CIS_UK on twitter for more information.)
As you enjoy the build-up to the Games and look forward to attending or watching on TV, spare a thought for the athletes and pressures they face and for those who will be there to help them cope – and see it also as an opportunity to reach out to your community.
Graham Daniels is general director of Christians in Sport and Stuart Weir is director of Verite Sport.