Here they come again. It’s those television advertisements hyping the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea. I’m a minor fan of both the winter and summer games, but not so much a fan of the nationalistic lead-up to the competition. Sure, I like to see the U.S. win medals and realize dreams in competition. but not so much the “heroism” storylines that accompany our introduction to the athletes, nor the presumption of U.S. preeminence.
One of these over-the-top promotional pieces features some of the USA athletes reciting words to “America, the Beautiful,” intoning deeply serious recitations against a backdrop of dramatic, athletic scenes. The combination of somber voice, a stirring verse of “America, the Beautiful” and scenes of personal sport triumph are designed to capture us and convey an sense of ultimate importance for the upcoming games. I know what they’re after, but for me it accomplishes the opposite.
“O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,”
I suppose that sports excellence has always conveyed a heroism upon the performer; we hold our athletes in the highest esteem, even when they exhibit behaviors which would be unacceptable when demonstrated by anyone else. But sports competition is hardly strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
The idea of Olympic athletes competing more from loving country than self would be a difficult notion for me to accept, given the fame, the surroundings, the money and accolades conferred upon them. Indeed, I would be very surprised to learn that an Olympic athlete had grudgingly taken up a sport and sacrificed a career in medicine or law or social work essentially for the good of his/her country. And I certainly can’t equate commitment to an Olympic sport with showing mercy upon others or giving up one’s life.
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!”
The interventions of a divine presence in winning a gold medal will best be left to someone else’s analysis; Olympics aren’t likely the domain of heavenly hosts, and in any case, for every prayer uttered by a U.S. athlete there are potentially 2,872 additional prayers from the other athletes. (This is the total number of athletes participating in the last Winter Games.)
It matters little whether the U.S. wins the medal count or the National Anthem is played more often than those of others nations. Success in the Olympics does not define a nation or a people, their character or their compassion. The Olympics is not a surrogate for battlefields of conquest or measures of character. But what we can watch closely is the capacity of human endeavor.
The Olympic Games, like their summer counterpart, have always been about the athletes. They provide a showcase of human physical and psychological accomplishment, a stage for imagining, and seeing, the limits of human capabilities. That’s the draw and the drama of Olympic sports. The attempt to make the competitions something more than they are does a disservice to the notions of sport, competition and the hope that is kindled during this brief unification of mankind.
Yes, the Olympics will provide a world stage for exciting competitions. But during those 16 days, there will be far more people in the world who cannot or will not be watching. For them, real heroes are the ones rescuing injured children following a bomb strike or hurricane. The strife being fought by these competitors is not against a clock, but against oppression or disaster or disease. These are the ones about whom it may truly be said that they put mercy and compassion ahead of their own lives, that the future of their people holds greater importance than themselves. Many of these will neither note nor care about the Olympics and the stories behind the athletes there. For them, there exists an even greater Herculean effort at hand, and one of far greater importance: giving of themselves to others.
So I will watch portions of the XXIII Winter Olympic Games next month. I’ll vicariously enjoy the breathtaking accomplishments of well-conditioned athletes in their prime. I’ll cheer for individuals and teams I like- for whatever the reason- and enjoy the hopefulness in seeing even a North Korean team present. But I’m not likely to mistake either the importance or the heroism embodied by the event. For that, I’ll look for the anonymous servants who tend to the also-rans….