Can the Olympics Bring Americans Together?

In case you missed it yesterday morning, The Gospel Coalition featured a reworked version of my Anxious Bench post on the religious history of the modern Olympics. They asked me to conclude with a bit more application for Christian readers, so here’s what I came up with:

Logo for the 2016 Rio OlympicsSo how should Christians respond to an event whose website still defines Olympism as “a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will, and mind”?

First, watching the Opening Ceremonies tonight should remind us that there is worship outside of churches. What philosopher James K. A. Smith might call the “secular liturgies” of the Olympics seek to form us as lovers of individual celebrity and national glory.

But if we believe in good news that’s far better than SportsCenter highlights, we might do like the apostle Paul and let the games inspire us to practice our own kind of spiritual training. While Olympism is “exalting . . . the qualities of body, will, and mind,” we should ask if our churches are forming people to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30; 1 Tim. 4:8).

And if we want followers of Jesus Christ to fulfill the second half of his greatest commandment—to love our neighbors as ourselves—then we might consider pointing beyond the glamorous facade of Olympic TV coverage to grasp and respond to the deeper economic and political problems facing our Brazilian neighbors.

I didn’t have space to develop the idea any further at TGC, but my reference to the games “[forming] us as lovers of… national glory” was inspired by another passage from Allen Guttman’s history of the Olympics, my main source for the original post.

While Pierre de Coubertin always meant the games to help foster global peace, Guttmann notes that he “was torn between a belief in individualism and the conviction that nationality is the indispensable core of individual identity. His internationalism was never cosmopolitan.” So a world event meant to transcend political divisions has always carried the “danger of rabidly nationalistic partisanship.” And here’s where the idea of “worship outside of churches” comes in:

To witness the spectators’ emotions when their national representative mounts the victor’s podium, when their flag is raised, when their anthem is played, is to wonder if nationalism—or sport—is not the true religion of the modern world. (p. 2)

Smith, Desiring the KingdomIn the TCG coda, I alluded to Jamie Smith’s influential book on cultural liturgy, Desiring the Kingdom. Here’s what he has to say about the formative power of a national anthem at a major sporting event (“even if only viewed on television”):

In a massive space thronging with people, eager for the beginning of the event, a crowd of a hundred thousand people can be brought into remarkable placidity by the exhortation, “Please stand for the national anthem.” Like parishioners who know all the motions of the Mass by heart, these fans instinctively and automatically rise together. They remove their caps, and many place a hand over the heart as an artist or group sings a rendition of one of the world’s most affecting national anthems, laden with military themes such that those singing it are transposed into battle, the identity of the nation being wrapped up in its revolutionary beginnings and legacy of military power. Perhaps even more importantly, this rehearses and renews the myth of national identity forged by blood sacrifice. (p. 105)

Smith’s talking there about pro sports (“an NFL football game or a NASCAR race”), but given what I noted earlier about the intentionally ritualistic nature of the Olympics, you can see why Guttmann sees the games as exemplifying the idea of “nationalism—or sport” as “the true religion of the modern world.”

I do think that dimension of the Olympics ought to concern Christians, whose highest allegiance is to the Lord of all nations.

At the same time, national identity is important to many of us  — and singing a national anthem together can deepen our experience of such a community, as the greatest scholar of nationalism once pointed out:

No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing a moment of simultaneity. At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. The image: unisonance. Singing the Marseillaise, Waltzing Matilda, and Indonesia Raya provide occasions for unisonality, for the echoed physical realization of the imagined community…. How selfless this unisonance feels! If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and where we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing. Nothing connects us all but imagined sound. (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 149)

I don’t want to ignore the problems here. (Beyond my religious concerns, consider that fascism understands Anderson’s insight better than any other ideology — or read my post on the problems of “soccer-fueled national unity” at the 2012 UEFA championship.) But I also don’t want to dismiss the importance of sustaining national community. And in my forty years as a member of the American nation, I’ve never felt those bonds fray more than they have in the past year or two, as a uniquely toxic political season forces us to recognize (and/or exacerbates) how social, cultural, economic, religious, and demographic changes have increasingly sorted us into distinct tribes.

So I wonder if the Rio Games, for all their many faults, could possibly help to slow or even reverse some of these forces. It’s not hard to imagine Americans coming together (virtually, at least) to cheer world-class squads like the women’s gymnastics or soccer teams, or individual stars like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and Serena Williams.

American and Japanese players before the championship match of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup
The American triumph at last year’s Women’s World Cup was the last time I felt anything like Anderson’s “unisonance” – Creative Commons (Nicki Dugan Pogue)

What’s harder to know is if any kind of Olympic centripetal effect could last beyond the games. We think of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey team as helping to inspire and unify a depressed, divided nation, but I suspect that memory might be playing tricks on us. After all, that victory didn’t benefit the incumbent president, and yet the winner of that fall’s presidential election barely cleared 50% of the popular vote, in part because of one of the stronger independent candidate challenges in history. Past that, my knowledge of American history fails me…

What do you think? Do you see national community falling apart? And if so, should we be concerned by that? Could the Olympics restore a greater sense of national unity? (Any examples of that from history?)

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