Why I Watch the Olympics, in Spite of Everything

Anyone who’s not meditating in a cave somewhere knows that the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China have just concluded. I have to confess that I enjoy watching the Olympics, which may sound strange coming from a Course teacher. How can a Course teacher enjoy an athletic competition that is for the most part a monument to specialness? On a more mundane level, I’m sure it’s simply an artifact of my youth. I watched the Games growing up, I was a competitive distance runner who once dreamed of Olympic glory as a teenager, and old habits die hard. But I think one reason I watch the Games today is because they offer, on a world stage, both extreme examples of egocentricity (which can help us get in touch with our own versions of egocentricity), and occasional glimmers of hope that we may yet transcend our petty egos and join together in peace.

We’re all familiar with the egocentricity part. The Olympics are, after all, a competition. The athletic contests are all about acquiring specialness; in the words of the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” That motto is telling; it’s all about having “more” of something than others, which the Course regards as a form of idolatry:

Each worshipper of idols harbors hope his special deities will give him more than other men possess. It must be more. It does not really matter more of what; more beauty, more intelligence, more wealth, or even more affliction and more pain. But more of something is an idol for. (T-29.VIII.8:6-9)

Of course, it’s not just about competition between athletes, but competition between entire nations, as the medal counts and national anthems at medal ceremonies attest. And sadly, we’ve seen just how far both athletes and nations will go to win that coveted specialness. There are the doping scandals, from the East German athletic machine of the 1970s to Ben Johnson to Marion Jones. There are the judging scandals, like the figure skating flap in the 2002 Winter Olympics, where a French judge admitted favoring a Russian pair in a quid pro quo arrangement with the Russian figure skating federation, costing a Canadian pair a deserved gold medal. Speaking of figure skating, who could forget Tonya Harding’s thugs kneecapping rival Nancy Kerrigan with a tire iron before the 1994 Winter Olympics? But of course, all of this pales next to the worst Olympic tragedy of all, which had nothing to do with winning medals but everything to do with specialness: the killing of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Munich Games.

The host nation, too, uses the Olympics as a showcase for its own specialness; the 1936 Games in Berlin come immediately to mind. Each host country does everything it can to make itself look good, and this year was no exception. The Chinese government did everything from limiting the driving privileges of Beijing residents so smog would be reduced, to clearing out the poorest residents of the city, to restricting press freedom, to banning protests of any kind (supposedly people could protest in certain zones with permits, but – surprise! – not one request for a permit was actually approved).

And in an incident that is small yet telling as an expression of the lengths we’ll go to enhance specialness, the Chinese Olympic organizers went so far as to have a 9-year-old girl lip-sync a song in the Opening Ceremonies, because the 7-year-old girl who actually sang the song was deemed not “cute” enough. This reminds me of the Course’s statement that we use one part of one Son of God to serve the ego’s purposes, and another part of another Son of God to serve the same purposes (see T-15.V.7:1). Here, at least in the eyes of those who planned the Opening Ceremony, there was one girl with a special voice and another with special looks, so they tried to combine the two into something extra special.

As we can see, so much of the Olympics is a hymn to the ego. Yet that is not how the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, imagined them. He was an unabashed idealist, who saw the Olympics as a way to bring the world together in peace and harmony. In his eyes, what he called the “Olympic Movement” – which to this day includes educational and cultural events as well as athletic ones – was a kind of secular religion dedicated to the betterment of humankind. The Olympic Charter expresses the goals of the Olympic Movement this way:

The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

As we look at what the Olympics have become, we can easily conclude that de Coubertin was hopelessly naïve. And yet, in spite of everything, I do see glimmers of the Olympic ideal he envisioned. The Olympics are really the one major public occasion where people of all the countries of the world are joined in one place (there have been boycotts in the past, but not recently). In recent Games, we have seen sworn enemies like North Korea and South Korea march together in the Opening Ceremonies. Whatever the positions of the governments, there is generally a tremendous spirit of camaraderie among the athletes, as I witnessed firsthand when I attended the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

And amidst the cheating and scandals, we also see this camaraderie expressed in the form of extraordinary sportsmanship and goodwill. During that 2002 figure skating scandal, the Canadian pair, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, were pictures of graciousness; they said they didn’t feel robbed, and Pelletier even defended the French judge, saying, “I don’t think the judges should be massacred by the journalists.” The Russian pair, Anton Sikharulidze and Elena Berezhnaya, were gracious too; when the Canadians were also awarded gold medals, the Russians didn’t cry foul and sulk, but instead attended the second medal ceremony and smiled as they were photographed with their fellow gold medalists.

There were some remarkable displays of sportsmanship and goodwill in this year’s Games as well. One example was American swimmer Dara Torres, who insisted that officials delay her 50-meter freestyle semifinal heat so that Swedish swimmer Therese Alshammar could change out of her accidently torn swimsuit into a new one. Torres’s act was truly selfless. It could have destroyed her own focus – crucial in a short race where competitors are separated by hundredths of a second – and if she had done nothing the Swedish swimmer would have been disqualified, giving Torres one less competitor to worry about. When asked why she did this, Torres said, “In the pool we’re competitors; out of the pool we’re friends.” (Fortunately, sometimes good deeds don’t get punished; Torres won the heat and ended up with a silver medal in the final.)

Then there were pistol shooters Natalia Paderina of Russia and Nino Salukvadze of Georgia. On the very day of the Opening Ceremonies, Russia invaded Georgia and the two countries were at war (so much for the fabled Olympic truce). But later in the week, when Paderina won a silver medal and Salukvadze a bronze, the two women, who were friends as well as competitors, decided to show the world that they were not at war, whatever their countries were doing. They hugged and kissed each other on the medal stand. Salukvadze said afterwards, “If the world were to draw any lessons from what I did, there would never be any wars.”

As I contemplate the Olympics past and present, there is a tension in my mind between two poles: the undeniable egocentricity of so much that goes on at the Games on one pole, and those athletes who really seem to embody de Coubertin’s noble ideal of sportsmanship and world peace on the other. What I’ve concluded for myself is that despite the fact that the Olympics are one more playground for the ego in a world full of ego playgrounds, there is still something about them that inspires me and makes me want to watch them in spite of everything. Their founder really did have a worthy ideal in mind when he created them, and striving for that ideal seems worth doing, however imperfectly it is realized.

I’m reminded of the Psychotherapy supplement’s statement that when one brother tries to reach out and help another, the “two come very close to God in this attempt, however limited, however lacking in sincerity” (P-2.V.4:3). I’m also reminded of the Course’s injunction to “Dream of your brother’s kindnesses instead of dwelling in your dreams on his mistakes” (T-27.VII.15:3). I’d like to think that however limited and lacking in sincerity the Games may be as an instrument of world peace, the shining examples of those athletes who do step out of egocentricity and are truly helpful to one another can bring us all closer to God.

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Or you may be interested in delving deeper into A Course in Miracles.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]