July 6, 2005. St. George’s House, Windsor Castle.
As I and my British “clergy course” classmates gathered around the TV, a rush of expectation filled the room as we awaited the announcement of what city would get to host the 2012 Olympics. Elation replaced expectation when the announcement was finally made. On TV the Princess Royal and the Mayor of London cheered enthusiastically. And so did our little group of largely Anglican clergy. Determined to be a good guest, I politely repressed my default view that no serious city needs the nuisance of an Olympics, and so joined in the general jubilation. Less than 24 hours later, July 7, a homegrown terrorist attack in the London underground offered a sad reality check about the kind of world in which the modern Olympics take place.
The “liturgy” of the Olympics – its grandiose opening and closing rituals, the medal ceremonies, etc. – is a contrived modern spectacle with little or no real connection with the ancient Olympics. But it is a great show nonetheless. I won’t be watching most of it, but will surely catch some of it. The true devotees will, meanwhile, watch all they can, and should have unprecedented ease of access this year thanks to the advances of modern media.
The Olympics offer something for everyone – impressive displays of athleticism, intense competition, heroic accomplishment, experiences of national rivalries and opportunities for national pride, diverse cultural activities, and stirring ceremonies. Whether they are worth the cost – and the stress - is a judgment call, of course. But, judging from the amounts countries and cities are willing to spend and the inconveniences they are willing to undergo, the majority vote seems to be in the affirmative.
The original Olympics included only a limited number of events and were as much religious and civic celebrations as athletic competitions – in keeping with the less compartmentalized character of classical culture. The contemporary Olympics cannot possibly replicate or even match that – and really don’t try. But, more than most other modern events, they do manage, however briefly, to unite us and the different dimensions of our lives in a way we really seem to enjoy and are willing to make extra effort to keep up.
So let the games begin!