I love the Olympics. There’s something wonderful about athletes from every country, coming together to compete as equals… Except, perhaps some athletes are, in George Orwell’s phrase, “more equal than others.” When you look past the hard training, grit, determination, and will to win, the difference between a place on the rostrum and mere anonymity often comes down to cold hard cash.
Great Britain is basking in the glory of its biggest medal haul since 1908—including 29 golds. This is up from a grand total of one at the Atlanta games in 1996. Have UK athletes, inspired by the roar of the home crowd, suddenly dug deep and produced these stunning performances? Perhaps. But the funding tells a different story: between Atlanta and London, funding for “Team GB” from the National Lottery increased from 0 to 158 million.*
Overall funding (from the government and the National Lottery) since the 2000 Sydney games has increased four-fold—and the results in the medal table have doubled. And the sports into which the government has injected the most money are generally the same sports which have returned the most medals. Also, according to a recent study, “Independent [private] school students are more than five times over-represented amongst our [UK] medal winners relative to their proportion in the population.”**
I have found it illuminating to watch these games from a UK-centric, BBC-filtered perspective. In the US (I assume), the focus was on the epic battle between the Americans and the Chinese. In the UK, we’re usually happy if we can get a medal. Now, at an amazing third place in the overall medal standings, Britons feel like they are on top of the world—because the US and China don’t count (they’re too big, too rich, too powerful).
Interestingly, the way that Great Britain feels about the unassailable clique of two (the US and China) probably reflects the way that the rest of the world feels about the West in general. Kenya devoted $1.5 million to its athletic program this year***…less than 1% of Team GB’s funding. I’m sure Team USA’s injection of capital is even higher (though figures are not so easily available, because Team USA receives no government funds).
Certain sports are virtually closed to poorer nations. A BBC article reports: “‘We have identified four sports where there is virtually no chance that anyone from a poor country can win a medal—equestrian, sailing, cycling and swimming,’ says [Professor David Forrest, a sports economist from the University of Salford]. He points to a study suggesting there is one swimming pool for every six million people in Ethiopia. Wrestling, judo, weightlifting and gymnastics, he says, tend to be the best sports for developing nations. For the majority of other disciplines, money is key.”*
So, do the Olympic Games just confirm that “the rich get richer”? Do they merely perpetuate the systems of injustice in the world?
Yes and no. To some degree the Olympics have always been about more than the individual athletes competing—they have been a stage where nations act out their politics and economics, for better or worse. But the fact that women competed for Saudi Arabia this year for the first time—though there is still a long way to go for women’s rights there—is a victory. The fact that runners from poverty stricken nations rub shoulders with multi-million dollar sponsored athletes—and exchange hugs and jerseys at the end of the race—that’s a victory as well.
To the world, the Olympics might be the closest glimpse of heaven they get. It seems that God has placed this dream deep in the human heart: we long for people from every nation to come together in unity and equality. We’d like to believe that the Olympic movement provides a fulfillment to that dream—but, sadly, the Olympic ideal is often tarnished by injustice, drug doping, and politics. But there is another place that people should be able to look for a picture of unity and diversity, equality and celebration, joy and grace in both winning and losing: the church. Do they see it there?