We love the Olympics! Even in odd years, even in odd circumstances, we take up the cry: faster, higher, stronger. Our innate desire is to always do better.
According to records, the ancient Olympics began around 776 BCE and continued at four-year intervals for more than a thousand year (until 393, current era); the modern Olympics only restarted in 1896. Though held that year in Athens, it was the first time that non-Greeks could compete and, rather than being a tribute to Greek gods, the games became a tribute to global spirit and the best that humanity can offer.
As a schoolboy in 1976, I watched in amazement as Bruce Jenner was declared “the greatest athlete in the world.” The nation and much of the earth cheered as he dominated the decathlon events in Montreal during the Cold War. An icon of Olympic prowess, he was what every kid wanted to be. Four years later, in Lake Placid, the underdog amateur hockey team from the United States upset the Soviets in what became known as “the miracle on ice.” Who cares that the Russians beat a much better American basketball team to claim gold or that Bruce Jenner, as many joked, exchanged his place on the cover of Wheaties for some Fruit Loops with the Kardashians—those fragments of modern Olympic history were moments of exhilaration and sublime greatness.
As well as the thrill of victory and agony of defeat, there were also notable tragedies. During the ’72 Munich Games, Palestinian terrorists stormed the Olympic village and killed Israeli athletes. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime promoted Aryan racial superiority but were emasculated as Jesse Owens won four gold medals in running, jumping, and relay events and many other black athletes countered Hitler’s absurd declarations and dictatorship. In 1968, at Mexico City, two American athletes were sent home after using the medal ceremony as a platform to promote black power—though they later described their act as a protest for human rights. Women were permitted to compete for the first time at Paris in 1920; Germany and Japan were banned from London in ’48; all of the African nations boycotted in ’76. These and other famous and infamous incidents impacted our global society.
Eighteen-year-old Cassius Clay took the gold at Rome in 1960 and returned to light the torch in Atlanta in ’96 as Muhammad Ali for what many consider to be the most golden moment of all. The pageantry and fanfare of opening and closing ceremonies call us to celebrate as the best of each nation is paraded before the world. The torch reminds us of the resilience of humanity amidst the darkness and obstacles that periodically hinder or separate us. The interlocking rings symbolize that, in spite of all our differences, Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and America are connected—together we stand tall and together we fall.
A Catholic priest, Father Henri Didon, is credited with the motto, citius, altius, fortius. It shouldn’t surprise us, for he was influenced by the writing of Saint Paul which encourages us to compete well, fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith to the end so that we can cross the finish line and merit a crown of victory. The laurel crown of the ancient Olympics has been replaced by the shiny medals of modern games, but the goal is the same: to do our best. The games ought to also inspire us in faith. What athletes strive for in sports is what we strive for in life: also, to do our best. Whether faith, hope, and love, or our thoughts, words, and deeds, we are called to go deeper, greater, heartier in our spiritual exercises and daily prayer so that we can be happier, holier, and more wholesome. With that attitude we, too, will cross this life’s finish line prepared to enter the winner’s circle, sharing Christ’s reign in the kingdom of glory.