Like a billion or so other people, I’ve tuned in to watch the Olympic games a few times over the past week or so. There are some good plotlines and some phenomenal athletes. But as I’ve watched, I have found myself wondering why I cheer for the American athletes. The obvious answer is that I am an American. But beneath the obvious response is an alluring and somewhat troubling question: As a Christ follower, why would I count “American” to be such a significant part of my identity? Is that who I am? If not, why do I engage the games as I do (as one who cares much that my home country wins)? And if my identity is in Christ, then why do I willingly acquiesce to the underlying values of the Olympics?
What has me troubled most is one word: power. It seems that at the heart of the Olympics is not athleticism, or athletic competition, or even nostalgia (though there’s plenty of all three on display), but power—national power, to be precise.
Who wins at the Olympics? For the most part, the athletes from the rich and powerful parts of the world triumph over the less powerful. The more powerful and rich a country is, the better they do at the Olympics. Case in point, China, who did not field an Olympic squad until 1984 (except for a blip on the screen in 1952), has steadily grown into an Olympic power concurrent with becoming a world power.
The Olympics are a nationalistic power trip—an opportunity for powerful nations to prove (to themselves and to one another) the obvious: that they are powerful. The rich countries are powerful enough to send more athletes, powerful enough to provide more support for their athletes, and powerful enough to win.
What bothers me about this is that I care. I want the USA to win, but why? I’ll chalk it up to what I’ll call “tribal transference”— How well my tribe does gets transferred to me and increases my own sense of well-being. If my nation is a winner, I am a winner.
But the One I follow teaches troubling things about power; lessons that don’t line up very well with the power trip that is the Olympics. We are not to strive for power, but to release it. We are not to rally around a state that can crush the competition, but to be crushed. After all, Christ ministered in a culture that suffered beneath the weight of a super power. Indeed, He was crushed and crucified by the power of state.
Jesus calls into question the inherent goodness of power; He turns the desire for power on its head and urges us to strive for last place. He insists that we not snuggle up to the powers of this world, and that we resist finding our identity or hope or success in anything or anyone apart from the Father who made us, the Son who redeems us, and the Spirit who sustains us in the struggle to bear the image of God more fully.
During the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, I noticed four athletes who competed without a country. Because of war and politics each of them chose to compete as an “Independent Olympic Athlete.” Maybe I’ll follow their lead. With my identity being in Christ, perhaps I’ll watch the rest of the games as an independent, someone who can appreciate the stories, marvel at the athleticism and cheer for those who suffer, because I am already a winner through the sacrifice of Christ.