Sin and the Olympics

The best part of the Olympics, for me, has been watching my daughters don goggles and race each other to the other end of the pool and back. They try to mimic Michael Phelp’s powerful turn — which sure beats sedentary staring at a computer screen.

Each Olympics brings some form of inspiration. Unforgettable moments get etched into our minds.

The purpose of the Games is highly noble: An amateur (originally) athletics competition in a global context to showcase excellence and to build international goodwill.

But like in all aspects of life, the human tendencies toward sin attend. Cheating by athletes (doping); cheating by national teams (underage gymnasts); and cheating by judges (scores that just don’t jive).

As a volunteer during 1996 Atlanta Games, I enjoyed seeing the massive event up close for the first and only time. My meager contributions were to edit the Religious Services Guide, assist national and international media doing stories on religious aspects of the Games, and write some stories from inside the Olympic Village for use by a variety of publications.

My work was based in the Olympic Village’s Religious Life Center — which was the Baptist Student Center at Georgia Tech where I had previously been campus minister.
It was a busy place with worship services and other programs offered by a volunteer staff of interfaith chaplains.

The evenings were generally a quieter time when athletes would drop by after a tense and grueling day of competition on the big stage. A young woman competing in ribbon dancing for Canada was one I remember in particular.

From her I learned much about the sacrifice required to excel at the Olympic level. She had lived with a demanding coach for years and forgone many common activities of childhood and youth.

She also had a pretty good idea of how she would rank in the end. In subjective sports such as hers, she said, the politics of judging were obvious.

After my experience in Atlanta, I still enjoy the Olympics but have a less-romanticized view of the Games. In the Olympics — as in other arenas of life — the truth is that trying to be the best performer can often bring out the worse behavior.

There is a difference between the desire to do one’s very best and the willingness to win at any cost.


  1. I understand registrations in swimming, gymnastics, etc. classes always increase in Olympic years. So there is a clear motivation from such extensive news coverage of world class athletes. Few of us will ever attain such a pinnacle. Many cannot reconcile to that and remain engaged.

    While we don’t have Michael Phelp’s physique which is so uniquely useful in swimming, nor his inner drive, and certainly not his coaching or time in the pool, we can still learn from observing him. For instance on the longer swims (200 or more) it is the last kick off the last turn that he gains if behind or extends the lead if ahead. That is because he knows he can go oxygen deficit for the last 50 and still have something in the tank when he touches the wall. The lesson isn’t how fit or fast he is, it is that he has put efficiency ahead of full exertion on all of the prior laps. While we are not likely to become world class, we each can become more efficient. Each of us. Paradoxically enough, that requires us to focus more on balance and relaxation than splashing the water out of the pool.

  2. Judging from your title, I thought you were going to talk about the condoms the athletes had access to while at the Olympics.

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