Friday, 8 August 2008

A Christian viewpoint on the Beijing Olympics

Here is a short piece my father penned to deliver at his church (he's not a vicar). I'm not a Christian myself - I'm a humanist, but I must say that I agree with the sentiment of this piece. I think it's a really interesting and unusual perspective amid the hyperbole of Olympics coverage. I personally wonder why sporting events such as the Olympics, or the Premiership, etc are hyped so much. Do they really inspire ordinary people to get involved in grassroots sports? Or is their main function to generate prestige for the host country and revenue for the sponsoring companies?

A Christian viewpoint on the Beijing Olympics
By David Slinger

The Beijing Olympics open today. Tens of billions of pounds have been spent to stage them and tens of thousands of participants, members of support teams and officials will be attending. For China it will be a major showcase of its economic and social progress.

But what is the essential Olympic message and ideal? Is it:

- to win at all costs
- to excel to the best of one’s personal capacity
- to share in a friendly, international contest bringing the peoples of the world together?

Is here any spiritual dimension to all this? In what ways, if any, will the spectacle inspire us to pursue goals which Christians might hold dear?

The honest answer – at first sight, at least – might well be, very little.

In 1924, an outstanding Scottish athlete by the name of Eric Liddell, surprised the world’s press and sporting fraternity by refusing to run the 100 metres relay at the Olympics because the race was to take place on a Sunday. To compete in this way offended Liddell’s conviction that Sunday was a day for quiet reflection and worship of God, not a day to focus on men’s physical sporting prowess. I suspect that he viewed his great sporting achievements not so much as personal ones, but as fulfilment of a God-given gift.

The Olympic torch should not be seen as a kind of shrine to physical fitness and strength. These are worthy enough pursuits, but are not ends in themselves.

Christ did not single out high performers, the strongest, wealthiest and most commercially successful, to become his Olympic-style top performers. He focussed on ordinary people, the weak, the old and the sick. His idea of strength was more about an inner moral strength than a desire to outperform others.

In the Sermon on the Mount, you will not find a call to the faithful to triumph over others. He challenged them to serve God and their fellow human beings, to cooperate and serve peace.

Yet we are called upon on innumerable occasions in The Bible to use our talents to the full. For a sportsman or woman this means hard training, courage and endurance if victory is to be achieved at a high level – especially the Olympics. But does winning and the victor’s rostrum bring the winners any closer to God than all the other competitors? I think the answer must lie in the effect the whole process has on the winner’s perception of his or her true motivation. Is it for the personal strength of character which may flow from the pursuit of excellence as an end in itself, or is it about an exaggerated sense of self-importance?

To reflect differing perceptions, innumerable dictums have emerged, for example:

- it’s better to lose well than to win badly
- it’s not winning, but taking part that counts

Or, to put the other point of view:

- who wants to be a loser?

We should recall, perhaps above all statements, one which Jesus is reported to have made about the ultimate judgement of performance in that most important of all events: living itself.

“But many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

Also: “What profiteth a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?” For which we might substitute “gold medal” for “the whole world”.

For a Christian, then, the Olympic message does not appear to be a very promising one, that is, unless it leads to the transfer of sporting skills to other areas of human endeavour and to an equal determination to seek a true meaning of life, not just Olympic medals.


  1. All sporting spectacles come down to two motivations: the celebration of human physical achievements, and tribalism.

    The first comes down to sitting in front of the telly and simply marvelling at the speed/agility/sychronicity of it all, the hard work and determination, the human stories behind the sport.

    The second aspect - good old tribalism - is where sport starts to become much less positive. While I don't think I can bring myself to agree with Monbiot's assertion that he feels nothing different to this country than any other, I would agree that anything that seeks to impose artificial ways of perceiving difference and separation is a negative thing.

    So let's instead watch a collection of people (of differing nationalities, genders, ages and abilities) competing with each other - but not necessarily to be the best.
    Sounds great.

  2. An excellent idea Matt. The other thing to remember is that several million children from 'ordinary' backgrounds having access to municipal or school sporting facilities in the evenings and at weekends so that they can have fun and get fit is far, far more important and beneficial than a few hundred elite British athletes. The idea that the elite athletes inspire youngsters to take up sport is over-egged I fear. We need more investment in grass roots sports (and music) rather than the utter obsession we have for national teams and elite athletes.


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