“Silver and gold have I none” – London Olympics has distinctly religious flavour

The front page of The Daily Telegraph on the day Sally

The Daily Telegraph, just one newspaper adopting religious words to describe the London Olympics 2012.

Pearson won gold at the London 2012 Olympics carried a single-word headline: “Salvation”. National pride had been restored by a trickle of Gold medals. The tabloid’s headline writer reached into the box of ‘religious’ words to sum up the feeling.

Religious words and ideas have had an unexpected prominence in the London games. This mood was set by an opening ceremony full of music with God references. William Blake’s Jerusalem carried the Industrial Revolution history scene. Henry Francis Lyte’s Abide With Me was sung all the way through. No, Eddie McGuire—it is not a song for all faiths:

“Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

And then there was Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire theme. Describing a new Chariots of Fire Stage Show on London’s West End  (sell-out crowds and much patriotism), Fairfax’s Caroline Wilson commented “It dominates the stage show as it has the entire Games. Somehow three decades have not robbed it of the stirring pathos first heard when it accompanied Abrahams and Liddell as they ran along St Andrews Beach…. It still seems at home with every London medal ceremony.”

Blake, Lyte and Liddell – a powerful set of Christians who, if they could see it from heaven, may well be bemused by the London games; Blake would wonder if the stadium is a “Satanic Mill” from his poem Jerusalem, Lyte – a country parson – would have shunned public adulation, and Liddell at the enlarged spectacle (and Sabbath breaking).

“Halfway through the Olympic Opening Ceremony, Paul Mason, Economics Editor of the BBC’s Newsnight tweeted, ‘Entire ceremony has echoes of catholic priesthood who taught Danny (and me) – rerum novarum etc’” the UK website Ekklesia’s Bernadette Meadon commented.  “I was glad when I read this, as I was beginning to think I’d been imagining it.”

Rerum Novarum is a Papal Encyclical dealing with workers rights and the dignity of labour and “Danny” is Danny Boyle, the film director who created the opening ceremony. William Blake, mystic and Christian social reformer would have relished that sentiment.

In the actual games, religion has entered the public square as well. The theme has been faith – in the presence of success or the lack of it.

Sally Pearson (gold in the 100m hurdles) was gracious to her religious silver and bronze runners up.

“After winning medals in the women’s 100m hurdles, Americans Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells thanked God for their talents,” reported Georgina Robinson in the Fairfax papers. “The woman who beat them, Sally Pearson, sat between the silver and bronze medalists, silent as her rivals pledged to ”exalt his name” and blessed God for answering their prayers. Eventually, an American journalist asked Pearson about her faith. ‘I’m not a hugely religious person so I can’t really go there,” Pearson said. ”But I’ve been given a gift from somewhere, I’m not sure where, but for me I don’t want to waste it as well. You want to use it every single time you’re out there.’”

Outspoken Christian Lolo Jones came fourth. The Christian Post reported that she tweeted “In room singing Desert Song by Hillsong. It’s on repeat. Lord Jesus please comfort me, guide me, and heal my broken heart,” on Tuesday afternoon.

“Jones then tweeted again, thanking all of her fans for their support, adding in a follow-up tweet, “Also want to thank u Lord for giving me technically the best seat in the Stadium to watch the 100m final. Congrats Sally, Dawn, and Kellie.”

One Australian who was left wondering about God was Stephanie Rice. She told the ABC’s Philip Williams.“I feel really relaxed now and really at peace. Obviously straight after the 200 I was initially disappointed with placings and times, but I think I’ve had a chance to reflect on the whole journey and sort of be able to come to the fact that I did everything that I could have done and that was just the path that God lead me on and it was not a good one. And I did the best with what I could and I’m pretty happy now, I just feel so relieved; it was such a tough journey and it’s so nice to be done.”

PHILIP WILLIAMS: “Now you mentioned a little while ago you said “that was what God gave me”; how much do you feel that sense of that there is a higher being directing the show?”

STEPHANIE RICE: “I always believe that you sort of, everything happens for a reason – I 100 per cent believe that and, I’m not sure why. I sort of had a big talk to my coach the other day, I don’t understand why this was the path that I had to have been dealt but I dealt with it the best way I could and I couldn’t be prouder of the way that I got through it.”

One chaplain has posted from inside the prayer room, where God-talk took place away from the public gaze: Rev Andrew Wingfield Digby on the “Anglican Mainstream” site:

“On Sunday we had a marvellous service in the Christian prayer room. Perhaps 70 or so athletes and officials joined us from many countries including 7 or 8 from the GB team which was encouraging. There was testimony to faith in Jesus from many athletes including contrasting stories from a very successful US sprinter and a marathon runner from the Congo. …

“The preacher, a Scottish minister who is chaplain to Kilmarnock football club (someone has to do it) spoke about identity in Christ. “Who are yer?” he asked quoting the aggressive and nasty football terrace chant. Does our identity lie in our performance, in the case of the Olympics in sport, but it could be anything, or does it lie in the great mystery that our lives are actually hidden in Christ? He, not ourgold medals or are disappointments , are where true life is to be found. …

“I had also been touched by an encounter with a pistol shooter who had underachieved in his event. He had come to the Bible Study I had fortuitously prepared on 1 Samuel 1; Hannah is disappointed at not having a child and bullied by her rival for her husband’s affection (Read the story!). She prays to God, has Samuel and dedicates him to God by asking Eli, the Priest to bring him up in the Temple. What a huge sacrifice she made to give what was most precious to her and most longed for (her gold medal) to God. But how God blessed her (with more children) and the nation through Samuel. His ways are not our ways! The pistol shooter told us later that his Good Friday had turned to Easter Sunday as a result of the Bible study.”

Digby asks Christian to “Pray for those last encounters with athletes going home. Quite a few come for a gift of the special sports Bible the Bible Society has produced with More than Gold. We write in them and give them a verse. Yesterday I was reminded that we first did this at the World Student Games in Sheffield in 1991. An American swimmer took a Bible, never read it till several years later when life was in a muddle. God spoke to her, she became a Christian re-entered competitive sport and got selected for the US swimming team where she shone as a light for Jesus.”

You can read Andrew Wingfield Digby’s full report here.

Top image: Flickr – Jonno101101