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Saturday, 6 August 2016

Saturday Morning Lacking Sparkle

This weekend, like most weekends, I strolled, quite early, to the Starbucks Coffee Bar which is built into the local superstore just a couple hundred metres from my home. I always go there these days to read the daily paper over a Cappuccino Grande, a habit which began during convalescence from a cardiac procedure last year. I arrive early so to avoid the queues that tend to build up, especially at weekends. This time was no exception. Except that this morning there was a significant queue of people waiting at the counter. And looking to be extra staff members drafted in to cope with the unusually high demand. I was rather gob-smacked. Is everyone as  resilient as I was, getting up at seven in the morning after less than three hours sleep? As I remarked to an assistant serving me and who knew me reasonably well, I was expecting the entire population to be still in bed, sleeping off the small hours of the night.

Because I was one of the majority who spent the best part of the small hours staying fixed to the television to watch the 2016 Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics. Or was I one of a minority? Perhaps a small minority? For the entire four-hour duration. And then I crept upstairs feeling less than excited as Alex slept peacefully throughout the night. The entire World's Greatest Show lacked the sparkle which was generated four years previously at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics.

Was the contrast due to the greater distance from home and the time difference as a result? There is a possibility that this was a contributing factor, but to me that was unlikely. The theme for the opening of the Rio Olympics was about climate change and the need for conservation, together with a rather quick run through the history of the indigenous Brazilians living in the rainforest, the invasion of the Europeans, the onset of the slave trade and its liberation, then a greater portion of time given over to the development of modern cities with emphasis given over to sky-high residential and commercial blocks.

All this had reminded me of the Spring Harvest Christian festival I attended either in 1992 or 1993. The theme back then was about caring for the Earth's resources, including litter and waste disposal. I went home with a flavourless taste in my mouth. It was the lousiest festival I had ever attended, and I left the site no more edified than had I attended the most boring of businessman's conferences, where the main topic centred on how much can be saved, in pennies, if we cut back a little on this and a little on that. Ugh!

And that is how I perceived the night's opening of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Pasty. Rather like at such a businessman's conference. We were actually warned before the start of the ceremony being low key. Quite a contrast to the 2012 London Olympics which really made the opening ceremony the greatest show on Earth. The theme then was how the Green and Pleasant Land of William Blake's poem Jerusalem was spoiled by the invasion of those dark satanic mills. Where the "sky-high residential blocks" of the 2016 theme were just an optical illusion on the otherwise level ground, the "dark satanic mills" of the Industrial Revolution were actually tangible industrial chimneys rising from the ground. We were entertained by the exploitation of steel workers by wealthy capitalists dressed in Victorian suits, top hats, and ties. Then the rise of the National Health Service, which featured well in the ceremony, along with the Queen dropping into the stadium from directly above, and good old Rowan Atkinson as the bored Mr. Bean tapping away at that one key of his piano during the theme tune of the movie Chariots of Fire. Indeed, 2012 was the greatest show on Earth.

Dark Satanic Mills, London Olympic Opening Ceremony, 2012

We are told that the Rio ceremony was low key due to financial reasons. This may or may not be entirely true. I would have been far more convinced if the reason given was that the poorer residents of Rio de Janeiro were offended by the presence of "the rich man's show" right in the midst of slum and squalor. The Media carried a story of the procession of the torch being hampered by a group of protesters as it was approaching the stadium. Even the cauldron from which the Olympic flame is at present blazing - is rather small, which necessitated the use of sunbursts consisting of revolving discs surrounding the flame to bring out its emphasis. 

The contrast couldn't be more obvious. This Brazilian city has always been divided by the rich and the poor. While the Olympic Park was under construction, there were protests even leading to violence, and cries that taxpayer's funds should go to projects such as health and the environment, and not to something which is so temporal and transient.

They have a point. The 2004 Athens Olympics held a special status as the games returning home, that is from where the idea of such a Games originated. The opening and closing ceremonies were both superb. But are the Brazilians aware of the Greek Olympic venue ten years after closing? Quite likely. The site lies as an abandoned derelict, fenced off and an eyesore to anyone passing by. Even in our own Olympic Park in Stratford, there has been criticism on the lack of redevelopment and the resulting loss of revenue. But at least we have not let the site fall into dereliction as the Greeks did. The main athletic stadium has been converted into a football venue and has been hired out to a Premier League football club. The Aquatics Centre remains under-used, and the Orbit Tower spiral slide, built next to the stadium was meant to be a major public attraction. Instead it at drawn only a third of the estimated number of visitors, and since it is making such a loss of income, there are calls for its demolition.

Abandoned Aquatics Centre, Athens - outside and inside.

Orbit Tower, Stratford

Will the Rio venue end up like the derelict in Greece? Or more like ours in the East London area of Stratford?  Or will efforts be made for the encouragement of its use by the locals? I suppose all we can do is wait and see. After all, our London venue had a far greater optimistic post-Games view than it does at present.

But I wonder what God is saying about all this?

It can be seen as something ironical that the Olympic venue in Rio lies in full view of the statue of Christ the Redeemer, standing 98 feet, 30 metres, with arms open wide, spanning 92 feet, 28 metres, as he stands on the summit of Mount Corcovado, taking the whole city into his majestic embrace. From what he sees, the appearing of the Olympic Park populated by well trained athletes, many of them from an affluent background, causing resentment among the poorer locals residing in dirt and squalor. A division. Between rich and poor, cleanliness and dirt, luxury and deprivation. If the statue was the living Christ himself, I wonder what would he have thought of it all?

It is apparent that God does not think against the idea of the Games. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, writes:

For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
1 Timothy 4:8.

In encouraging the church in Corinth, Paul uses an illustration from the ancient Greek Olympics:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize. Run in such a way to get the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:24.

Then the writer of Hebrews has also added:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1.

So God is not against the Olympics, he is not against sport or physical exercise either. If he is, then I would be committing a serious sin every time I go to the gym. And I go three times a week. And to watch the Olympics would be a gross sin, let alone partaking in the tournament. And what about football, our national sport? I cannot visualise a father and son attending a match on a Saturday afternoon as sinful. Rather, such a trip out would far more likely strengthen family bonds. Furthermore, if I am allowed to boast a little (Paul did - 2 Corinthians 11:17-18) - I will boast of the triathlons I completed in the late 1980's, including open-water events, with both sea and lake swims. Not to mention early Sunday morning cycling burn-ups on open roads free of traffic. Ecstatic! If anything, these have brought me closer to God rather than build a barrier between us. Of the three - swimming, cycling and running: riding the bicycle was my greatest strength which provided the maximum sense of endurance within the sporting trinity. As Paul exhorts: Whatever you do, do for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The statue of Jesus looks down at a divided city. If the statue could talk, he would exhort to compete for the glory of his name. But for all the poor in the city living in depravity and squalor, his arms are wide open to them as well. He will call out to them:

Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gently and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-29.

And all who are wise enough will run to him, and take shelter in the Strong Tower, the Rock of their salvation - which has greater value than many gold medals. 


  1. Dear Frank,
    Since being saved, I have always loved Paul's use of Olympic metaphors -- running the race; winning the crown; the bema seat. And I have also held fast to God's Word that we can glorify Him in whatever we do (as long as it is free of sin) if we do it as an act of worship to Him. Thanks for this excellent post reminding us of these, and also for the statue in Rio, which I would love to see one day as art glorifying His love, power and arms open to "whosoever" will come.
    God bless,

  2. Unfortunately too many political figures think that holding and event such as the olympics will resolve a city or countries economic woes through bringing in a surge of visitors. Unfortunately, they often spend far more developing the facilities the Committee demands than the event can garner, and once the even is over, there is, as you point out, no ongoing use of the facilities. As a result, the the taxpayers and economy are actually worse off than before. The international committee and a few advertisers are the only winners. I am not surprised that poor people resent being forced to pay for the facilities for such and event when they can't pay for the things they need for everyday life. The cost of the Greek Olympics is one factor in their current economic problems. While Athletic events are not inherently wrong, they ought not force the people into poverty or the nation into bankruptcy.