My experience of the atmosphere in the Olympic Stadium on Friday has got me musing on the relationship between the Olympics and my Christian faith. One of the first things I thought, as I joined with 80,000 excited people, was that this is what it felt like back in Ancient Rome in the Coliseum or any of the other great amphitheatres . Christians, of course, shunned such events because they were associated with all the things that were evil about that kind of pagan world. One was cruelty and exploitation, another was excessive competitiveness and a third was encouraging people to seek a shallow fix of pleasure.
I was also intrigued by how noisy it all was. When you watch it on TV, they keep the sound of the crowd quite low, and almost blot out the heavy background music and continuous commentary.
But when you are there, they even have a 45 minute warm-up session which includes practice cheering – more like a pantomime than a sports event! I did ask, with my tongue in my cheek, why they didn’t choose Mozart, and was told sternly by a family member to “Get real!” In this sense it felt more like a Rock Festival than a sports event, reminding me of Reading when I was in my 20’s! – rather a long time ago!
So the Olympic Games is quite clearly put on to entertain people. If it were purely a sporting event far fewer people would go and there would be very little sponsorship to help pay for it. That, of course, is the bit that made me wary of the whole thing. Yes, I enjoyed it and wouldn’t have missed it for anything, but that’s no reason not to stand back and give it the kind of critical assessment that every Christian should make of the many worldly things we get involved with. Indeed it took the Church a very long time to accept that such entertainment was OK for Christians. The only drama allowed at one time for Christians was the drama of the Mass and the Religious Processions and Mystery Plays. Anything else was definitely not on.
Nowadays almost all Christians accept that it is OK to be entertained, but I fear that few Christians realise that, as with everything else in the world, there is quite a difficult path to tread between what is good and what is rather less good!
This certainly applies to the Olympics. What is good is that the countries of the world can get together in a spirit of friendly competitiveness rather than fierce opposition. What is bad is when people get obsessed with their side winning; which is why I was so glad when I was there to see the crowd cheering winners from other countries like the Polish Shot-putter or the Ethiopian 10,000 Metres winner. Yes, we cheered the Brits, but most of us cheered lots of other people too, and that was just great.
However I heard someone on the Radio pointing out how weird it was when Becky Adlington had to point out to journalists that getting Bronze was pretty good, and that gold isn’t the only colour of success. I was also intrigued when one journalist asked Mo Farrah whether he wouldn’t have preferred to run for Somalia, and had to be told firmly “This is my country” meaning Britain!
Clearly some journalists need to be taught a thing or two! It might explain why some journalists seemed to think it was quite OK to hack into people’s phone conversations!
Isn’t it good that athletes do have a good attitude on the whole to all this, unlike the media? It is good to see them supporting one another and showing a comradeship even with their fiercest competitors. Did you see Michael Phelps supporting the young Australian who beat him? Magic!
Yes, the thing we Christians surely need to be wary of is the media hype that, just like in Roman times, turns the whole thing into a kind of mass entertainment, appealing to people at the shallowest level of pleasure rather than encouraging something deeper and more lasting. The idea that we all need entertaining all the time rather than finding, as these great sportsmen and women do, a way of achieving something in their lives which needs guts and courage and sacrifice, is surely what we should point people towards – so very different from seeking some kind of surface pleasure.
But I do have to admit to one bit of bias. If I see someone cross themselves, I always support them a bit more because I am so glad to see them openly acknowledging that all that they do is nothing without God.