The Olympics capture our imagination. They have their own pageantry, mythology, and symbolism. Part of their narrative of inspiration is that for a brief instant the world does something good together. The heart of the Olympics is that instead of throwing spears to kill, we throw spears only to see how incredibly far they can go. If only for a tiny moment in history we fix our eyes not on destruction, but on the singular wonder of human creatures. Not to drop bombs on one another, but to marvel at one another.
It’s still easy to be cynical though. As with any lofty ideal, the Olympics never seem to live up to the hype of our desperate wishes. There are international politics involved. There are inordinate amounts of money and swindling and empty stadiums scattered across the world. There is bribing, Zika, and doping. As a fan of track and field,doping has inexorably marred the magic for me. And I’m not the only one. We’re tempted to tune out. Just another disappointment to fuel a jaded world.
But then I read a headline like this – Olympic chiefs give go ahead for ‘refugee team’ to take part at Rio 2016, and a spark of hope returns. This is a reminder to take off our cynics’ lenses and choose to see something beautiful every now and then. Don’t give up on the Olympics because in this little story we see a reason to engage the world. A refugee team is the power of the Olympics at its best. Rather than dwell on the politics or practicality of such a decision, we should just revel in the symbolic potential of it.
"It is a story about a small group of refugees who do not have to be labeled outsiders and victims. In this story they could be called champions."
My warmed heart and renewed optimism are signs of something bigger at work. If your heart was warmed like mine then you too are a witness to the emotional importance of public justice, especially the critical need for civil society. After all, why are we bothering to write about an Olympic refugee team on a site dedicated to things that are, well…more political? Because politics is not everything. This happened outside the bounds of normal government – the type of government we lose sleep over in election cycles like this. Yet, it is bringing tears of joy to small bands of refugees and will perhaps be a sign of hope to millions this summer. So this is more than a neat story. It is the beauty of nationalism instead of its ugliness. It is the ability to do something together that is not destructive. If we value this, then we value the capacity of these non-governmental events to shape our hope and reality.
This capacity to shape hope and reality is not just for the Olympic stage, it happens in our local communities constantly. We tend to minimize the importance of government, but even more we minimize the vital necessity of all the other institutions that form our lives. Maybe we underestimate the importance of the local high school rivalry game or this viral story about a basketball team showing incredible sportsmanship. Maybe we don’t give the inter-church Good Friday service its due credit. Maybe celebrating the mental health millage that just passed in my county is something I should take more seriously. These stories matter. They are not just meant to be fluff pieces, for many are a matter of life and death. Civil society makes a difference in shaping public justice. It brings us together and takes our despair to task. Not everyone is doping. Not all dreams fail. Not all public engagement is worthy of our cynicism.
We live in the hope that even sports can create a game-changing narrative. It is a story about a small group of refugees who do not have to be labeled outsiders and victims. In this story they could be called champions.
-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI. www.calvaryreformedholland.org