“Citius. Altius. Fortius. Faster. Higher. Stronger.” –Olympic Motto, 1894
There is something about the Olympics, our world’s bi-annual international sporting competition, which can stir the heart and lift the soul, maybe even give us a deeper faith in humanity. Unlike any other global event, it can be difficult to watch the opening ceremonies—with a rainbow of nations entering the stadium, the release of white doves symbolizing peace, the lighting of the Olympic flame—without getting a bit choked up. This summer, when our world is rocked by the chaos of domestic and foreign terrorism, as whole regions of the globe shift in often scary ways, the Olympics, at their best, give us hope, perhaps, that we can somehow get along. At least on the playing field.
Consider: for two weeks, most of the world will watch and cheer this global event together. Thousands of athletes, moved to compete in sport merely for the love of it, which is the definition of the word amateur, represent their homelands with pride and joy. Obscure and quaint sports that never get in the spotlight suddenly gain our attention. Who knew how exciting fencing could be? Or pole vaulting? Or the shot put? In Rio all the ideals of fair competition will trump the flag of any one nation. No first world or third world. No one religion or political system to tear us apart. A Davidic athlete from a tiny nation might actually slay a Samsonite warrior from the greatest superpower.
At least that is what I want to believe, need to believe, as I watch the games.
I’m a big sports fan, have been since the age of seven, when I fell in love with baseball. Eighteen men on a verdant green and grassy field: hitting, pitching and batting. One team always wins. One team always loses. In the mind of that little boy and this now grown man, the game matters, in part, because I trust that it happens on a “level playing field.”
No cheating. No subterfuge. Just honest and hard fought gamesmanship.
The best sports always represent a covenant of sorts. We who watch trust in the truth of the game. Those who play agree to do so by the rules. Without this implicit covenant of honesty, the relationship breaks down between the fans and the players—the athletes in the stadium and the folks in the stands cheering their hearts out.
According to the journalist William Safire, in his 1993 book A Political Dictionary, the idea of a level playing field first appears in the Bible, in 1 Kings 20:33. In the midst of ancient Israel’s warring competition to secure a foothold in the Middle East, circa 950 B.C.E., Syrian fighters fear their Hebrew counterparts, so they devise a counter strategy. “‘[Israel’s] gods are gods of hills; therefore they were stronger than we; let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.’”
Translation. We can’t beat them at their own game in the mountains where they know the playing field. But if we get them to play against us on a flat plain in the desert (that level playing field), we might just win. They’d have no place to hide. There’d be no tricky undulations on the playing surface to give the home team a secret advantage. Just mano e mano, face to face, eye to eye. Final score? Israel still won a rather lopsided affair against their Syrian foes.
But we get the idea and ideal: in the truest of human competition, competitors must agree to play by the rules, if the game is to matter. If fans are to believe in the games they watch, they must trust that judges are unbiased, that athletes are drug free, and that the heavy metal shot put that the women will throw will always weigh exactly 8.8 pounds, no more, no less.
The truth is that the modern Olympics movement has been tainted at times by the scandal of cheating. This year the Russian team is down by more than 100 athletes after its government sports authority was caught cheating, so in Rio, there will be no Russian track and field team. They’ve all been banned for “unleveling” the field of competition, through state sanctioned doping.
To this, the cynic might respond, “Everyone cheats, just not everyone is caught.” The realist might say, “What do you expect?” They argue that the 2016 Olympics are filled with athletes who are in fact are paid by their sponsoring committees, and thus not true amateurs.
But me? I’m still a fan, a romantic about sports. In a world where cheating is too often the norm—in politics, in business, even in big-time religion—I need to believe in a part of life where folks win or lose, soar or sink, based solely upon their God-given talents. No short cuts. No sleight of hand. So I can’t help but be hopeful about the games and believe in “Faster. Higher. Stronger.” Believe that the overwhelming number of Olympians won’t cheat, and will instead demand a level playing field on which to compete.
So remember to set your DVR and get ready for the Olympics. Like the human condition, this temporary world community will always reflect athletes competing at the highest level of physical achievement, from the winner of the marathon, to the last person who crosses the finish line some eight minutes later. All we ask is that the athletes play hard and play fair. On a level field. Then, everyone wins.