Behold the Olympics!

Watching the Olympic Games on NBC has been more than frustrating. The actual events are cleverly isolated midst ad after ad, and chatter after chatter, on the screen. In frustration, I turned to a Spanish station that showed soccer, boxing, and races that were not yet available on NBC, which seems exclusively interested in what Americans do at the Games. No doubt, Ethiopian, German, or Chinese television networks feature their respective athletes.

I suppose that if I were in London, the logistics of getting to where separate events were actually happening would be daunting. No one could see everything as it was happening. And while each event has its own history and fascination, some people will be bored by swimming and others enthused by shooting or the pole vault. But, no doubt, something worth watching can be found in any event.

In the course of two weeks, we see boxing, rowing, equestrian events, track, shooting, jumping, vaulting, diving, swimming, weight-lifting, judo, volley ball, field hockey, basketball, soccer, wrestling, ping pong, gymnastics, badminton, hurdles, and marathons. The only things missing are football (American, Australian, Irish, and Canadian), sailing, baseball, poker, golf, lacrosse, hunting dogs, cock fights, bass fishing, auto racing, tractor pulls, and horse shoes. We see the world’s fastest men and women, as well as the strongest, the most agile, and the most enduring. When we finally are allowed un-interruptedly to watch a complete event, it is precisely a spectacle, something to behold, to watch, fascinated.

Aside from the occasional athlete who blesses himself before a race, the heavy garb of some Muslim women, and the “God” when “God Save the Queen” is sung in honor of some British gold medalist, we see or hear no indication of religion, aside from shots of Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s. The opening and closing ceremonies feature no blessings. Perhaps it is just as well. Security is difficult enough as it is.

Yet, the Olympics did have religious origins in their Greek beginnings. Mt. Olympus was the home of the gods.

The idea that men did their best before the gods is not to be ignored. And what could men do? Were there any limits? Is there something finite about us? I remember when breaking the four-minute mile and the ten-second hundred-yard dash were considered almost impossible. These old records are broken almost every day now. But now everything is in meters. Races are faster; jumps are higher; equipment more skillfully designed. The pole of the pole vault is more of a catapult; the starting blocks are streamlined, and the diving boards are more bouncy.

Again, what strikes us about the Games is their universality, even though a few nations still dominate. For many small countries, the winning of a bronze medal is more noteworthy than a gold among the Americans or Chinese. Yet, the whole world seems to be there. No other single event makes this quite so visible to us. The Olympic organization promotes women participation (this may partially explain the preference of volley ball to baseball).

If we look at many of the Olympic events—the shot put, the javelin, the high jump, the discus, wrestling, running, fencing, even rowing—we realize that originally such events were military in origin. We need to add to this list equestrian events. We have evidently “sanitized” them so that we seek to know, by these events, what man can do for its own sake. We still recall that in the days of Soviet dominance and of Chinese accomplishments, this military overtone was not wholly absent. The purpose of present-day Olympic Games is to make known what the human being can do. Whether this is worth doing or knowing will depend on one’s concept of man. Ultimately, we have to say that such things are worth knowing, though they are not the highest things that men everywhere need to know about what they are, about their destiny.

Modern Olympics have been passed from place to place—from Berlin, London, Tokyo, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Munich, or Rome. The present games are nationally based; athletes compete from the nations. The opening ceremonies emphasize this universality, though they properly retain a nationalist basis. The world does not exist apart from the nations of the world.

What is fascinating about the Olympics? It is the contest itself, the race, the effort to reach a limit in competition with others who are also qualified. Games and races are things worth doing for their own sakes. They bring out something in us even if we could not run a hundred meters in half an hour. We human beings are not just “doers,” but we are also watchers and beholders. Ultimately this may be the best thing about us. I suspect that this realization is the best thing we can learn from our watching the Olympic Games.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).