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Olympic Games spirit encourages the best in us

Same ideals are in the Christian tradition, beckoning us toward a better world

As the first phase of the Summer Olympics ends, and before the Paralympics begin, commentators have once again made attempts to summarize the games in descriptive words, some of which have included the word or the idea of Olympic "spirit." This spirit is expressive of something more than medal counts and individual or team victories or losses, although it is part of these. Some attribute this spirit to the ideal expressed by Pierre de Coubertin, whose initiative helped to create the modern games, and who said, "The important thing is not to win, but to take part."

A quick search reveals "Olympic Spirit" is an official program of the International Olympic Committee. The program's purpose is to provide opportunities for more youth of the world to experience the Olympics according to the ideals contained in the Olympic charter of "Building a peaceful and better world - in the Olympic Spirit which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play." Again, this spirit is more than final times, marks or points that determine medals and placing, although it is connected to these.

I am captivated by the photo and video montages of athletes of the games in moments of triumphant joy and tragic despair.

As Canadians we've shared in both with our athletes in these games. I can only marvel at what it takes to compete at this level and applaud them all.

What I find compelling is our common humanity so evident, embodied and raw in these images. There is something of the Olympic spirit captured in each of them.

We also witness overt expressions of spirituality at the games, even particular religious practices. Athletes make the sign of a cross on themselves and point to the sky or touch their foreheads to the ground. Some kneel or raise their hands in prayers of thanksgiving, some cry out in pain and disappointment through the same postures. Is something of the Olympic spirit held in these practices?

I spoke to a friend and member of our faith community who has been to the Olympics three times, as an athlete, a coach and an official. I asked him "What is the Olympic spirit?" He expressed concern that the Games were not what they used to be. That there are fewer true amateurs left of the likes of Roger Bannister. He said, "I grew up on the farm and you played after you worked. Now, sport is full-time work." But he does not want to take anything away from the accomplishments of the athletes. He said, "I see the spirit in the young people, in their efforts and support of one another, in their celebrating together like at the closing ceremonies."

Despite the changes and challenges of money and politics and the extreme pressure of the Olympic Games, I sense a transcendent spirit in the Olympics encouraging the best of humanity and human community. In my Christian tradition, we call this the Holy Spirit. And Jesus described this spirit like the wind, blowing where it wills. My sense is that this same spirit is as present in the fastest, strongest and highest, as in the athlete who came last, even apologizing as she crossed the finish line.

It is a Holy Spirit, beckoning us all "to take part" in "a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play," for "a more peaceful, better world."

Lyle McKenzie is pastor of Lutheran Church of the Cross of Victoria and parttime chaplain in Multifaith Services at the University of Victoria.

WRITE TO US

Welcome to a community forum on faith, spirituality and religion.

We invite you to write about the nature of faith from an individual point of view, to share experiences about your own tradition and practice, while respecting others' opinions and religions.

Here are the guidelines:

1. Limit your submission to 500 words or fewer.

2. Share your own experiences, and write only about your own tradition or perspective rather than about what you think others believe or practise.

3. Do not proselytize or attack other religions.

4. Focus on inquiry and reflection.

5. Think about how spirit and faith has relevance in your daily life.

We hope to see contributors from diverse spiritual and religious perspectives to create interesting, fresh and stimulating discussions on the place of spirit and faith in our community.

Email your submission to features@timescolonist.com