Religion Magazine

Olympic Spirit

By Nicholas Baines

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

So, the Olympics are over and the Paralympics are soon to begin. And I still find it odd to keep hearing the title “Tokyo 2020” in 2021. I know the reasons why, but it stops me every time.

It’s not the only thing that has been strange about these Olympics, either. I learned the other day that the Spanish national anthem doesn’t have any lyrics; they couldn’t agree what they should say, so they do without. Given the weirdness of some anthems, maybe that’s a good idea.

But, what’s amused me most about these Games was how the prophets of doom – “They should be cancelled because of the pandemic, etc.” – are now celebrating a brilliant couple of weeks of sport and competition … without a hint of memory or, even, irony.

It smacks of Arthur C Clarke’s observation about every revolutionary idea being filtered by critics through three phrases: first, “It’ll never work;” second, “It might work, but isn’t worth doing;” and, third, “I said all along it was a good idea.”

Well, I put my hand up to that one. I well remember questioning out loud why anyone would want a camera in their phone; a phone is a phone and a camera is a camera. That ended well.

 But, this is just how life is and how people are. If the Olympics are a test of many things – including stamina and determination – they certainly shine a light on character. You can’t just turn up in Tokyo, get off the settee and run a marathon. Some personalities are naturally optimistic and visionary; others need time and persuasion – like me and technology. A good society needs both early adopters and late developers: the former make things happen, the latter ask the hard questions.

One of the reasons I keep reading the Christian Gospels – apart from the fact that it’s my job – is that this diversity of character is taken seriously. The first followers of Jesus have their own distinctive personalities – which is why they often clash. Peter is impetuous and harbours illusions about how strong he is … until he discovers that he actually isn’t. Judas is impatient and wants to force Jesus’s hand into bringing the revolution now. At the cross, when the men do a runner, it’s the women who stay and attend to the painful detail of miserable death and surprising resurrection.

They all have their place and their role: early-adopting visionaries and hindsight-persuaded pessimists. The rash get slowed down and the slow get drawn along. Somehow it works.

Which is just as well, really. As the apostle Paul wrote and every athlete knows, the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.”


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