The Olympics are here! And living within a ½ hour of Vancouver makes it hard – no, impossible – to ignore the looming presence of the Winter Games. And as with all Olympics, Vancouver 2010 is viewed both positively and negatively, with responses ranging from uncritical embrace of the spirit of the Games, to unrelenting protest at the innumerable injustices associated with putting on such a large-scale event. This week I encountered both extremes.
The first extreme – uncritical embrace – I saw while attending the torch relay earlier this week as it passed through our neighbourhood. I saw how the Olympics create an electric atmosphere of celebration. The “Olympic spirit” was palpable. And I’ll admit, I revel in these type of community events - this experience of unity amidst the diversity of our world. I appreciate the intangible quality of the Games that literally brings people together. It’s a rare thing. So I walked with Landon and participated in the hoopla of watching the torch (see picture below). In an age of impersonal busyness we’re often insulated from personal contact with people in our community. In these Olympic moments, even if just for a few minutes on the side of the road, I see an alternative view for community relationships, one we see far too rarely. Perhaps these moments offer us a glimpse into the way God intended his creation to interact, however brief and incomplete that glimpse is.
These moments of celebration and unity, however, run parallel to another reality of the Olympics - the reality of exclusion. The marginalized in our society are usually left out, or worse, completely ignored. I was reminded of this dark side to the Olympics by another torch run that took place this week. At the culmination of an event called the “Poverty Olympics,” this torch relay calls into question the cost of everything "Olympics," including that glimpse of unity and celebration I enjoyed at the official torch relay. Quite simply, how can the world fight so hard to create brief moments of excitement while failing to place the same efforts towards fighting the ongoing moments of poverty? I’ll admit the glamor of the Olympics is very appealing, but the protesters question, "at what cost?" The Poverty Olympics cause me to ask how I contribute to the exclusion and injustice, and how my fully endorsing the Olympic spirit may in fact run contrary to Jesus’ command for Christians to love "the least of these" among us (Mt. 25:40). I realize, then, that however hopeful and positive the Olympic torch-relay euphoria is, its hope is incomplete.
And so, I feel stuck. The contrasting opinions and experiences reveal a tension in how I participate in the world around me. I see two different visions of hope – one easily accessible and fun, the other complicated and unpredictable. Common in both, however, is a vision of hope for a better world, however different those two visions are achieved.. Personally, I long for a time when unity is easily experienced such as many of Olympic moments provide. But I also realize this isn't the reality most of the time. Hope for unity requires a realism to address the messiness and sacrifice required to achieve that unity long-term.
Maybe, then, we need both torch relays. The Olympic torch relay reminds us of humanity’s deepest longings to connect, offering glimpses of true connection. The poverty torch relay reminds us that glimpses of unity are not enough as long as the injustice of exclusion remains. I think we need both messages. In fact, this tale of two torches illustrates a constant tension that Christians navigate as we participate in the world around us, seeking to affirm the goodness of God's creation while striving to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Mi. 6:8).