When I was younger, there were strict rules about television in our house. My younger sister and I each got to choose one half-hour show a week that we wanted to watch, but that rule went out the window every four years when the Olympics rolled around. During the two weeks of the Olympic Games, the television would be on constantly, and we sat glued to the television, often calling to our parents, “Come quick! So and so is going for a medal in the men’s single sculls.” (To which our parents likely responded, “What the heck is men’s single sculls? Tell us when swimming is on.”)
Like so many other girls my age, after Mary Lou Retton’s gold-medal performance in the 1984 Olympics, I begged my parents to let me start taking gymnastics classes. I had been captivated by her smile and confidence and inspired by the way she used her body to do seemingly impossible flips and twists. To stop my sister and me from imitating her iconic vaulting performance on our couch, my parents acquiesced and took us to Turners Gymnastics Club, which turned out to be the beginning of twelve years of competing and eight years of coaching for me.
Perhaps it was the magical 1984 Los Angeles Olympics that got me hooked (or the fact that I could binge on television during them). But I have been an Olympics junkie ever since. In high school, I told my friends they would not see me for the entirety of the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, that is, unless they wanted to camp out on the couch with me. In college, I rearranged my dorm room and stuck an antenna out the window so that I could get reception for the Sydney 2000 games. I love watching people push themselves to do better than they had ever dreamed they could do. I love seeing the many years of hard work and dedication pay off in a clutch performance. I still tear up at every cheesy “human interest” stories that take you into the lives of athletes.
Last night, four nights into the 2012 London games, I disappointed myself. I went against the Olympic spirit. Getting ready to brush my teeth, I said to my husband, “It has been a rough Olympics for the United States so far.” I said it because the Americans had failed to medal in the men’s team gymnastics, Ryan Lochte had taken fourth in the 200 m freestyle swimming, and the men’s 4 x 100 m freestyle relay team had come in second after their stunning victory in Beijing four years ago.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to take them back. First of all, when I went to bed that night, the United States was tied with China in the medal count, each country having 18 medals, twice as many as the next closest country. I sounded like a spoiled child who says it was a bad Christmas because she only got 13 of the fifteen gifts on her Christmas list. Second, and more importantly, my comment betrays the sense that winning is all that matters in the Olympics. How would my comment sound to the four women on the Qatar Olympic team, the first women from their country to compete in the Olympics? How would my comment sound to the thousands of athletes who have no hopes of winning a medal, but who spend countless hours training just for the chance to represent their countries and to participate in this great international event?
Certainly, competition is an important part of the Olympics; they are an athletic event, after all. But my automatic response to a few “losses” by the American team betrays an emphasis on winning that goes against what the Olympics are all about at their best: sportsmanship, international goodwill, and admirable human qualities like dedication and perseverance.
I know that WWJD is a bit cliché, but I went to bed wondering what Jesus would think about the Olympics. Jesus preached and lived an alternative ethic, one grounded not in competition but in love for others and humility of self. He even went so far as to say, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30).
I am not going to stop loving the Olympics… but I can tell I need an Olympic attitude adjustment. My parents always told me winning isn’t everything, and I think Jesus might tell me that winning is actually nothing in the grand scheme of things.
What do you think Jesus would like about the Olympics? What would frustrate him?
How does the winning or competitive spirit operate in your life? How does an Olympic spirit of sportsmanship and international goodwill operate in your life? How does the spirit of Christ, of love for God and neighbor operate in your life?