WE MAY NOT BE OLYMPIC ATHLETES,
BUT WE BELIEVE!
I thought that, during the Olympics, we should show our support and community spirit, as well as our sense of humour, by putting a sign out front saying “We Believe!” Everybody is into believing all of a sudden! As a believer, I don’t feel so isolated. Thanks to the Canadian Olympic Games promotional program, believing is respectable again! It is reassuring that people will still rally to believe in something.
I have always enjoyed sports, and I think elite athletes show us virtues like discipline, commitment, motivation, goals and focus, perseverance, talent, excellence, and even belief (in self, in country); they exemplify grace, power, beauty, and excellence. There are many things to admire.
“Faster, higher, stronger” is the traditional Olympic motto. It was originally proposed by a French Roman Catholic priest! Sports officials decided it would be a great motto for the Olympic Games. This year the focus in Canada seems to include an acknowledgement that success at this level is more than just a factor of genetics or equipment or physical fitness but has something to do with a deeper, intangible factor.
“Believe!” has been the Canadian Olympic rallying cry, indicating the element of inspiration is an important aspect. When you believe in something you lend your energy to it – teams refer to the extra “player” you get when playing in your home stadium, because of the positive effects of fans cheering them on (something like what happens when you pray for people, I think). If we could focus that hope, that positive energy, on other things as well, like the homeless, or the environment, we could change the world.
The great opening of the games Friday night was very inspiring. 2/3 of all Canadians (26 million) were watching it on TV. It was amazing, almost liturgical, and made me extremely proud to be Canadian. Along with the solemn moment of remembrance for the Georgian luge athlete who was killed, the whole thing was almost a religious experience. I think it’s about time that Canadians were actually inspired about what a gift Canada is – what an awe-inspiring country it is.
Over the years I have seen so many inspiring stories related to the Olympic Games. Canadians are almost obsessed with winning the hockey gold medal. We expect it now. But I always loved the days when Canadian amateurs played hockey. Their efforts against the Russians and Czechs were really impressive, considering that the Eastern bloc countries had teams that were virtually professional teams. I felt really proud of the teams of mostly college players we sent –they didn’t win, but played great hockey against stacked odds. I loved the moment in 1980 when the Americans, huge underdogs in the hockey competition, upset the powerful Russian team, in a game they still call “The Miracle on Ice.”
As impressive as the top performances are, and how great the “mountaintop experiences” they generate for the athlete and for the fans, I think we diminish it when we make it all about winning, and singling out the ones who succeed and get the medals. And we wreck it entirely when cheating becomes part of the picture, whether through performance enhancing drugs, or corrupt figure skating judges. When being number one is all that matters, a very different spirit and attitude prevails. I noted that Canadian medalists are going to get special jackets, to honour them, single them out, and distinguish them from the also-rans. Even though it is always a team effort that gets them there, the team usually doesn’t get the endorsements and the perks of fame.
I love the story of the Jamaican bobsled team. They were a novelty when they first entered at the Calgary winter Olympics – even something of a joke. But they were received with such warmth, and support, and wanted so hard to do well, that within a few years they were actually competing pretty well.
I remember Susan Auch, who was something a personal hero of mine, because not only was she an amazing speed skater and three-time Olympic medal winner, she accomplished all that despite having a serious case of asthma, which is something I struggled with for years.
What are these Olympic athletes doing it for? Money? Fame? Strong motivators, for sure. But many of these great athletes will never become rich or famous, even if they win. Susan Auch is now a real estate agent in Calgary, living a fairly ordinary life. What I find compelling is how many of them seem to get to that elite level because they are propelled by some inner sense of cause, or justice, or overcoming a barrier like poverty or racism or physical disability. And they are revered, because they were winners on a much higher level than the medal podium could afford.
Eddie Edwards was another athlete with more than the usual motivation. Edwards, better known as Eddie the Eagle, was a British skier who didn’t have quite enough skill to make the British ski team so he switched to ski jumping. He moved to the U.S. to train, spending almost all of his own money — he had to use someone else’s equipment to train, and had to wear six pairs of socks to make the boots fit. He was broke and living in a Finnish mental hospital (as a tenant not a patient) when he was informed he had been accepted to compete in the Olympics. By definition, ski jumpers are crazy – they go flying off the equivalent of a 15 storey building going 30 mph and then plummet down to a fairly hard, icy surface, hundreds of feet below — but when Eddie the Eagle jumped, his thick glasses fogged up so that he couldn’t see, which led to another nickname, Mr. Magoo. He finished last in each event he entered, but the fans loved him. He was an inspiration.
In characters like Eddie the Eagle, the Jamaican bobsled team, Susan Auch and many others we see a spirit that isn’t just about winning but also it is about the joy of sport, the participation, the determination. These stories, as well as the ones of moments of excellence and greatness and success, have the power to inspire the world.
In today’s Gospel, Luke shares with us an insight we call “The Transfiguration” – the ultimate mountaintop experience, perhaps reminiscent of a scene from Mount Olympus. There has been a lot of debate about this passage since about the 2nd Century, whether it is an actual event; whether it was perhaps a post-resurrection event. Either way, it has been shrouded in mystery. I choose to see it as representing that moment when some of Jesus’ followers began to realize just how great Jesus really was. In a flash of insight, they saw something about Jesus they had not seen before, and they suddenly came to see that he was on a level with Moses and Elijah, the greatest figures of their faith, representing two key elements of their religion: the Law and the prophets.
It is like this moment represents a choice the first followers of Jesus had to make: between elitism and allowing the good news to become universally accessible. The disciples’ initial response is — you’re so amazing – you’re so special – we have to put you on a pedestal – create a little hall of fame or a shrine – maybe a podium of gold, silver and bronze for the three great figures — perhaps a monastery up there in the refined heights of holiness and exaltation. But, according to Luke, Jesus would not accept that kind of glory and, instead, pointed the way back into connecting with everyday life and its problems – to engage and to bring healing and compassion. According to Luke, Christ’s message is universal – not just for a few lucky or privileged ones – not just for the winners but also for the losers of life.
This is a key message for the Church: not to remain obscure, closeted away, believing we are above the real world; not to be disengaged or accepting of some kind of arbitrary separation between sacred and secular, good and evil; not to believe that the rewards are only for the good or the most worthy. The witness and words of Jesus point us in a different direction. I think Jesus’ approach would bring to the Olympics a moment something like this:
A few years ago, at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a blur of speed, but all eager to run the race to the finish line. All — except one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, fell down, and began to cry. The other eight heard the boy crying. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them.
One girl with Down’s Syndrome bent down and kissed him and said:
“This will make it better.” Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes. Now that’s a great moment in sport!
Most of us are not gliding gracefully to the finish line of life. Like that group of handicapped kids, we struggle on our journey. Most of us aren’t standouts, gold medal winners, or celebrities. But sometimes we stumble upon the truth that those handicapped athletes, in their profound wisdom, revealed: that the last shall be first, and that we are not running the race alone.
When you think about it, with most of the winter Olympic sports, the gold is to be found at the bottom of the hill. On the mountaintop, there in the presence of greatness and grandeur, the disciples may have been tempted to see themselves as the luckiest people in the world, and we have tended to see the ascent to the top as the real direction of greatness. But Jesus, in his life, revealed the profound insight that true spiritual greatness is to be found in the descent – getting OFF the pedestal and coming down to be with people, not necessarily where they aspire to be, but where they are. Pity the poor disciples: one minute they’re standing there toasting this exquisite moment, this divine opportunity, thinking they’re part of a new dynasty; the next, they’re down on Hastings Street, knee deep in the sorrow and pain and sickness of daily life.
St. Paul likened the Christian journey to an athletic event, and our spirituality as an athletic endeavour. Here’s what I believe: that, as spiritual athletes, we are meant to inspire the world, with great efforts of compassion, and exemplary commitment to an ideal and to each other. What you believe is not just important, it’s the compass that guides your life. Believing draws people together, helps them accomplish much more than they could on otherwise. We believe in ideals of compassion, equity, and a universal gospel which see the greatness in every person. We offer a gospel that celebrates those who have found their greatness and encourages those who haven’t. We all need something to believe in, and we all need to know that at least someone believes in us.
I intend to watch as much of the Olympics as I can, and I will be cheering for Canadians to win gold, but I will also be looking for something deeper – for something profoundly human, or even divine, to shine through, and reveal something really inspiring. Every Olympics seem to provide at least one “mountaintop experience.”
(The Rev.) Grant Rodgers