Perhaps it has something to do with the outstanding results that Team GB achieved at this year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but for the first time in a long time this past month I actually enjoyed watching some world-class sport.
At school I played games (captain of the fencing team, no less!), but I was always happier when reading or in music rehearsals. The occasional Saturday afternoon rugby game aside—and during my studies in Washington a short-lived but enthusiastic obsession with baseball—my warmth toward athletic pursuits has always been somewhat tepid.
In fact, what really peaked my interest this year was less the feats of sporting prowess, and more the sporting attitude of many of the competitors. For example, when Team GB’s Richard Kruse was defeated in the bronze medal foil game (fencing, again), he swiftly picked up his opponents’ helmet for him—thrown away in jubilation—and stood quietly to salute him and shake his hand before leaving the piste.
When the American, Abbey D’Agostino, collided with New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin in the gruelling 5000 meters, she stopped to help her opponent up from the ground, and to carry on to the finish line.
Certainly that good-natured attitude is itself remarkable. Too often we see the scandals of professional and world-class sport—be it doping and drugs, or bad behaviour from sportsmen or spectators—and so the presence of such kindness is certainly encouraging. Still more, though, is the heady cocktail of those whose good actions and athletic ability are themselves fuelled by a supernatural strength; one which recognises and proudly identifies God as the source of their impressive athletic ability, and as the focus of the glory which, by their success, these athletes and sportsmen earn.
The visible presence of faith in the arena has seemed to me a little more noticeable this time around. The charismatic Jamaican sprinter, Usain Saint Leo Bolt, was noted by commentators to make the Sign of the Cross before competing, but it also transpired that he wears a Miraculous Medal.
Simone Biles, America’s young gymnast, is reported to light candles to Saint Sebastian and pray a Hail Mary before her awe-inspiring routines.
Other athletes, too, have been vocal about the essential importance of their faith: Katie Ledecky of the United States is a product of Catholic school education, and was described in one interview as “a devout, actively practicing Catholic.”
In Rio, of course, all of this was greatly emphasised by the presence of the imposing and iconic statute of Christ the Redeemer presiding over the Olympic park, and by the very natural and visible involvement of the Church in the games. When the Olympic torch and flame was blessed—at the initiative of Rio’s mayor, not the organisers—it was done at the foot of Christ the Redeemer statue by Cardinal Tempesta, Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro since 2009.
And if we, who perhaps ironically spent more time on the sofa in order to watch the games, are to be inspired by them beyond dusting off our trainers or joining the gym, perhaps it is from that positive mix of faith and ordinary life that we might benefit.
To actively place Christ at the centre of all that we do—from the heights of international sporting success to the most mundane tasks—is a sure path for our sanctification, and the seedbed into which the Church’s sacramental life can plant God’s grace.
Perhaps that might be Rio’s true lasting legacy—not just an array of gold medals, but a treasure of faith that will last.