Olympic Signs of Contradiction

Just before the 2016 Olympic Games began in Rio, Cardinal Orani Tempesta blessed the Olympic torch at the feet of the Statue of Christ the Redeemer. Images of Jesus with arms extended were beamed into homes around the world. This was not supposed to happen but there it was. Father Omar Raposo, rector at the Christ the Redeemer Sanctuary, located at the base of the statue, said the blessing, though it had not been scheduled by the Games’ organizers but was requested by Rio’s Catholic mayor Eduardo Paes. Amidst the Olympic hype, full of body focus, neo-pagan symbolism and lavish spending, this was one of the signs of contradiction, a reminder of the Savior, the true light of the world, contrasted with an earthly Olympic flame. It was a sign to be followed by several others during the games.

Let me say at the outset I am not a sports aficionado so my observations are random observations from the mainstream media coverage of the 2016 Rio games. Along with the rest of the world, when I saw the Fijian Rugby team win gold and engage in initial leaps of joy, suddenly I was part of the global audience hearing them sing a hymn of thanksgiving (in four part harmony) cameras rolling all the while. You might have predicted this if you had read the Fijian Rugby Blog—for you would have read the words of player Leone Nakarawa who wrote that “we know that being here is not from our strength but from God and its all God’s plan that we are here”—but then, you probably don’t read the Fijian Rugby Blog. On it Fijians assert that God is the ultimate motivation of their playing.

Then, as the world waited in anticipation of Usain Bolt’s impending 100-meter sprint, whether they were atheist, Islamic or Hindu, they had to watch him make the sign of the Cross before he assumed his position before the run. And they saw him make his way into the Olympic history books with his “fastest man on earth” speed of 9.81 seconds, making him the first athlete to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter dash. Usain did not only make the sign of the Cross; you might have noticed the chain under his top—he always wears a Miraculous Medal, that most Catholic of Catholic medals, and offers silent prayers before each race. He proudly reveals his middle name—Usain St. Leo Bolt, being very open about his Catholic faith, again before an audience of millions. It is reminiscent of Meseret Defar, Ethiopian runner, who after winning the 5,000 metre race in London’s 2012 games, pulled out a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and showed it to the whole world. She had carried the holy card of the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus for the entire race

Perhaps the most dramatic “rags to riches” sporting tale of 2016, is that of Simone Biles, the 19-year-old Texan who made her Olympic debut in Rio. Simone was born in Columbus, Ohio to parents with drug addiction problems. Her father left the family when she was young and with her siblings, Simone alternated between her mother and foster care. The turning point of her life came not with the swathe of Olympic medals she won with her flawless gymnastic performances (4 gold and one bronze) but with her being adopted by her Catholic grandparents, Nellie and Ron Biles who gave her the chance to develop her talent. The grandparents are the silent Olympians behind the medals, as they transmitted the Catholic faith to Simone and her sister, and homeschooled the girls. If you wonder whether the faith has made its mark on her, Simone has said publicly that she travels with a statue of St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes, and she also carries a rosary her birth mother gave her. She says a Hail Mary before each event. Again, Simone is not backward about being forward with her faith, and her public testimony about her faith, while sometimes omitted in secular accounts, still manages to get through in many magazines around the globe.

I first heard the name Katie Ledecky during these Olympics, and like the rest of the world, have been amazed at this swimmer seeming to shoot through the water like an arrow, almost a swimming pool length ahead of the others. Then I wondered where her seeming simplicity and groundedness came from. No chest beating hype from her at all. In an interview in the Catholic Standard on July 28, American swimmer Katie Ledecky revealed something of her inner life saying, “My Catholic faith is very important to me. It always has been and it always will be. It is part of who I am and I feel comfortable practicing my faith.” Katie, who attended Little Flower School in Bethesda till 8th grade and then went to Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart for high school, gave tribute to the “excellent, faith-filled education at both schools” in the same interview. At Rio, she has won 4 gold and one silver medal and also testifies to the fact that she says a Hail Mary before she swims.

Ledecky has long admired her hero American super-athlete Michael Phelps who is off the radar with his extraordinary performances in many swimming styles—with 23 gold medals over 5 Olympic games. Time magazine exuberantly announced, “The utter dominance of Michael Phelps has been the reigning story of the Rio 2016 Olympics” and yet, there is another story behind the story. Phelps, like some high achievers, got lost and sought stimulation in the wrong places, did drugs and got arrested in 2014. Feeling that his career and his life were over, being depressed, he even contemplated ending his life. The hidden force of spiritual witness plays its part here for Phelps received guidance from devout Christian and NFL legend Ray Lewis. As one account states it, he went to rehab and Lewis gave him a book, The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren which Phelps read and which helped him transform his life. This book has sold 40 million copies and is similar to Victor Frankl’s The Search for Meaning in speaking spiritually to a wide range of people. As a result of his friend’s intervention, rehab and reading the book, Phelps is spiritually grounded in his belief in God and in care for his family. Phelps has given great testimony to various media outlets to his belief in Christ, that spiritual Olympic gold medal, every believer attains.

While Rio was not just about winning gold, but about doing one’s best, it is interesting that some superstars at the latest Olympics, despite their physical achievements, have given public witness to their spiritual core. One might have expected this in a Catholic country such as Poland where on Nov 2, 2015, soccer fans unfurled a long poster with the message “Stand and defend Christianity” and before another match, unfurled a giant banner of Christ’s face. But to have such symbols beamed around the world at the Olympic Games, given its pagan ritual, body worship and earthly success, is a stark sign of contradiction, especially for the secular mainstream media who, in a post-modern, morally relativist age, have had to film them. Missionaries can only dream of this coverage. The superstars gave witness to the One above all earthly achievement, in a simple, uncomplicated way, without complex theological points, to all four corners of the earth.

(Photo credit: Reuters)

Wanda Skowronska

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Wanda Skowronska is a Catholic psychologist and author living and working mainly in Sydney. She is a regular contributor to the Australian Catholic journal Annals Australasia. Her most recent book is Catholic Converts from Down Under ... And All Over (2016). She earned her PhD at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne in 2011 where she does some sessional lecturing.

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