Olympic Reflections

I love the Winter Olympics, summer too for that matter, look forward to television coverage, read whatever I can about the aspiring athletes ahead of time, follow their progress through the various world championship events that serve as a run-up to the big event, the Olympic Games. I’m grateful that Olympic officials decided several years ago to stagger the winter and summer games so I have a two year wait instead of four years between them. I even love the always over-the-top opening ceremony, with the host nation pulling out all the stops to show off and demonstrate creatively its prominence and importance on the world stage. Who will ever forget James Bond ushering Queen Elizabeth to a waiting RAF helicopter from which she parachuted into the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony of the London Summer Olympics? This year’s extravaganza at the Sochi games was the most elaborate and expensive ever, dramatizing the amazing story of Russian history.

Few things move me as deeply as watching our American athletes on the victor’s stand after receiving their medals as the flag is raised and the National Anthem played. Almost always, the athletes, ordinarily nonchalant and breezy, are also suddenly moved and begin quietly to mouth the words, “O Say Can You See, by the Dawn’s Early Light.” And there is something equally significant about the way athletes from every nation react in the same way as their nation’s flags are raised and anthems played. I understand the dark side of nationalism historically, but I do love that moment.

During the two weeks of the Olympics we find ourselves in front of the television every evening, and for two weeks the games are the organizing principle of our lives. Shaun White and Shani Davis, American athletes who won gold medals at the two previous Winter Olympics and were each heavily favored to win an unprecedented third gold came up short and failed to place. It was  a poignant moment and a reminder that these athletes are so finely tuned and trained, and the time span when they can compete at this level is fairly brief. Always there are younger athletes behind them, on the way up, who will become new record breakers and medal winners.

I am singularly uninterested in the standings of the nations on the basis of number of medals. It seems to distort the whole thing. Of course I’m thrilled when an American wins, but the Olympics have always been about individual competition, not nation against nation. There’s too much of that in the world already.
The only disconcerting and jarring moments for me were the televised pictures of Russian president Vladimir Putin watching and enjoying the games. I simply cannot put out of my mind the fact that 1,000 miles away from Sochi, in Syria, there is an absolute catastrophe happening in which Putin and the Russians are deeply implicated. Putin has the capacity to help end the conflict, or at the very least make life a little less horrendous for the Syrian people caught between the Syrian army and the resistance forces, and refuses to do so. Russia supplies weapons to the Assad regime which Syrian troops then use on the Syrian people. Putin and the Russians, along with the Chinese, refuse to allow United Nations food and medical aid to get to the suffering, starving Syrian people. History, I believe, will judge Russian refusal to act or even cooperate as one of the most cynical and cruel incidents of our era.

In the meantime, happily, the Games continue and somehow manage to rise above the messiness of global politics….thanks be to God.

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