Perhaps one has to go back – way back – to get a sure fix on it. Maybe that's the only way to find what has always been at the heart of the Games. Because at their very core there has always been what's often termed the Olympic spirit. What is it? A kind of common bond centered on love of sport. A shared union among all who savor excellence on the athletic field regardless of the origin or nationality of the individual athletes.
At its best, this Olympic spirit transcends the backstabbing and bickering, the political maneuvering and international one-upmanship that seem to swirl around our planet almost all the time, but become especially noticeable when the Games are about to begin.
Does that Olympic spirit in fact spring from a foundational spiritual fact? Some say that the first Games grew out of religious festivals meant to honor the Greek god Zeus. This spiritual basis, however modest it may look in the present day, makes the Games more than just yet another athletic competition. That spiritual foundation remains as the Olympic spirit, even though so much has happened religiously and politically since the first Games.
In its ultimate spiritual basis, such thinking unifies. It wipes out differences. St. Paul described spiritual unity this way: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). This unity of spirit has been well illustrated by China, set to host the summer Olympics and currently grappling with the effects of a powerful earthquake.
In the hours and days and weeks following the horrific event, a spirit of brother-helping-brother, of sister-aiding-sister, and even of stranger-rescuing-stranger swept across the country. In the midst of that immeasurable heartache, that spirit yielded handful after handful of encouragement. Individuals who'd been trapped under tons of rubble for five, six, seven, even eight days were, on at least a few occasions, unearthed alive. Individuals who'd caught the spirit and launched themselves into action made a healing difference. This spirit of life-saving cooperation wasn't confined to the Chinese. It found international expression when China – in a break from its past patterns for dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters – welcomed aid from the United States as well as from other nations.
Are the Olympic spirit and the spirit of cooperation that blossomed following the tragic earthquake one and the same? No. The differences are many. But it's easy to suspect they are not unrelated. It's easy to suspect they at least spring from the same divine source.
For those inclined to pray for happenings around the world, including happenings that have not yet occurred, that's good news. It's good to realize that a divine source actually exists. And it's good to realize in prayer that this divine source is a steady fountain. It bubbles up with the spirit of caring when that's called for. And it sustains a spirit of friendly rivalry when that's what is called for. The God that announces Himself in the First Commandment is the one and only God of us all. His is the power that fuels our pursuit of excellence. His is the love that impels our caring for one another. Regardless of nationality or color or gender or creed, He embraces us one and all.
The founder of the Christian Science Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, once wrote, "One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself;' annihilates pagan and Christian idolatry, – whatever is wrong in social, civil, criminal, political, and religious codes; equalizes the sexes; annuls the curse on man, and leaves nothing that can sin, suffer, be punished or destroyed" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," p. 340).
Let the Games begin. Let the Olympic spirit continue.