The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia this year were, as always, preceded and accompanied by critical commentary on the importance of the Olympics. Criticisms included concerns over human rights violations in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the economic cost of hosting the Olympics and the perceived ostentation of Sochi.
Despite these concerns, and my personal apathy towards winter sports (sorry, hockey fans), this year’s Olympics still managed to surprise me with the sheer joy expressed in the most famous international celebration on Earth.
Although I take very seriously criticisms of Russian politics, especially their treatment of sexual minorities and political dissidents, criticisms of the policies of the country hosting the Olympics are by now a time-honored tradition. Many remember criticisms of China’s policies regarding Tibet in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, but the tradition has been a constant throughout the entirety of the modern Olympics.
Residents of Oslo, Norway, one of the finalists to host the 2022 Olympics, expressed concern about the economic cost of hosting the games on a recent NPR feature. Certainly the costs are real, but one interviewee perceptively expressed the spirit of the Olympics by comparing the Olympics to a party. Norway, she suggested, had enjoyed attending the party in the past, so now it was their turn to host.
Because the Olympics is a party — arguably the biggest party thrown regularly on the planet — the joy of celebration is what draws people to watch the Olympics each year. Certainly competitive events, such as the gold medal women’s hockey game between the U.S. and Canada, attract the most attention, but this is hardly unsurprising at a worldwide celebration of the best athletes in the world.
Indeed, the spirit of athleticism is partly what makes the Olympics the joyful celebration that they are. Although the media enacts an ad hoc competitive medal count between nations, no such competition is built into the Olympics, and for the individual athletes, simply attending the Olympics is such an honor that very rarely do athletes feel ashamed losing. The Olympics, rather than being a place of high-stakes competition, are a showcase of some of the most talented performers on Earth.
The most compelling parts of the Olympics are moments of joy, such as American luger Kate Hansen’s carefree warm-up dance routine, and close, hard-fought games like the gold medal women’s hockey game evince only admiration for the talented players on both sides.
The world may be a fallen place, but nowhere is the vision of God’s kingdom more clearly seen on a global scale than in the joy and celebration of the Olympic Games.