Olympic Addiction? Guilty as Charged

Dear Pope Benedict

Let me say right at the beginning that I’m not Catholic. But I’ve been so wracked with guilt for the past few days I didn’t know who else to turn to. I figured you’d be the expert on the subject: Catholic guilt, and so on.

So forgive me Benny, for I have sinned.

I tried resisting. I really tried. But once it had its claws in me I was powerless to say no. I can’t stop watching the Olympic Games. And the more I watch, the more it casts its spell over me.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. I’ve spent the last two years reading about the build up to Beijing 2008 and cursing the Olympic organisers for awarding China the Games to begin with. I know about their brutal repression in Tibet, their refusal to act on the genocide in Darfur, their destruction of the environment and their shocking human rights record at home that’s gone from bad to worse in the build up to the Games. You’re the expert, but I’m guessing the Big Guy already has special plans for the Chinese leadership when they’re waiting at the Pearly Gates.

But I wasn’t in favour of countries boycotting the Olympics, you understand. For a start, athletic non-attendance is a feeble form of political protest. And once you begin boycotting competing countries on non-sporting grounds, where does it end? Would countries refuse to compete against Great Britain and the USA because of the invasion of Iraq? What about countries that support or are hostile to Israel, or countries that don’t give equal rights to women or homosexuals? I don’t think anyone’s impressed by Japan’s whaling obsession. Or Canada’s seal cull bloodbath. Or Brazil’s destruction of its own rainforest. Boycotts have a nasty habit of spawning counter boycotts too, so unless we want international sport to be reduced to New Zealand and Sweden going toe-to-toe, we’ll have to bite the bullet.

Granted, minor moral points were made and some guilt was alleviated when Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chancellor Angela Merkel declined the invitation to the Opening Ceremony. Although I guess not wanting to be seen sitting next to President Bush is a sound political move for anyone seeking re-election. I was planning on giving the Opening Ceremony a wide berth myself. But I was weak. All it took was 2008 drummers with luminous sticks banging away in total darkness to suck me in. Yes, I know it’s a repressive dictatorship, but they put on such fabulous shows.

My fingers were crossed in the hope that some competitors would assuage my guilt by making some subtle form of protest. As I write this, I’m still waiting. Before the Games’ 40 leading track and field athletes handed in a letter condemning China’s Human Rights record. According to Amnesty International many of those athletes withdrew their support before arriving in China. I’m sure many of them are dealing with guilt issues of their own.

“Such retractions take place against a general backdrop of fear in terms of freedom of expression and censorship surrounding the Beijing Olympic Games,” stated Amnesty International. “They also further highlight the failure of the International Olympic Committee to show clear moral leadership ahead of the Games. Athletes should feel free to express their personal opinions on human rights without fear or favour.”

You grew up in Nazi Germany, Benny. You were even in the Hitler Youth for a while, so I’m sure you understand a thing or two about how tough it is to speak out against repression when you’re in the belly of the beast. But everyone competing in Beijing is in a privileged position. And although I understand that there must be major political pressure for morally outraged athletes to keep their mouths shut, I’m sure I’d feel a lot better if even one of them stuck it to The Man, Tommie Smith style.

“It is remarkable that we want to say athletes should shut up and just play,” said likeable ex-NBA player John Amaechi, who’s combining his roll as Olympic Ambassador for Amnesty International with a day job as basketball commentator for the BBC. “In everyday context they (athletes) are good enough to tell us what cereals to eat, what shoes to wear, about anti-obesity or whatever, but when it comes to a fundamental tenet of human rights, somehow they are not good enough. If we want them to be holistic role models, then let’s let them be holistic role models. The legacy of most elite athletes is to be completely vanilla. I played basketball for many years and the idea that my legacy to this world is putting a ball in a hole is unsatisfactory to me.”

I’m with Amaechi 100 percent. And the sense that somehow Beijing’s lingering issues have been temporarily brushed under the carpet in the name of sport has left a bitter taste in my mouth. Yet I’m still entranced by these Olympics.

Perhaps the TV coverage has something to do with it. Thanks to the advent of digital TV technology, I can flick between up to six live channels of BBC sports coverage at a time. You’re the theologian, but I’m pretty sure that’s what TV in heaven is like.

But watching the Olympics is more than a non-stop intravenous sports drip. It’s not about Kobe Bryant or Roger Federer or Ronaldinho or Carlos Sastre taking time out from their lucrative day jobs to represent their country for a few days, either.

The Olympics entrance me for the competitors that don’t tell us what cereals to eat or what shoes to wear. Every time I watch these weightlifters and rowers and archers and gymnasts and boxers and, er, judo-ers I’m acutely aware that I’m watching the defining moments in these men and women’s lives. Everything they do from that moment on will be coloured by their success or failure in that one instant. Whether they took gold and glory, failed heroically, or screwed their chance up spectacularly, that’s what will define them for the rest of their lives. Their subsequent fame or anonymity will boil down to one burst of focused energy and concentration.

No one will ever want to talk about their views on human rights or their kids or what books they’ve read recently. They’ll want to discuss what it was like being an Olympian. Athletes may be representing their country but far more than that, the Olympic stage repeatedly provides the setting for deeply affecting personal drama.

Of course, these dramas that can be over in seconds take years of mind-spinning hard work to prepare for. Which is why I can’t help but give them the respect their sacrifice deserves by watching as much of these Games as humanly possible. It’s not the athletes’ fault that the International Olympic Committee chose to hold the games in Beijing. So if my willingness to look past that decision makes me a bad person, well, you better write back detailing how many Hail Marys I owe you.

Here’s one last theological question for you, though. One you’ve probably heard a billion times already. Is it a sin to wish defeat on the US men’s basketball team? If so, I, like the rest of the world outside the 50 states, am utterly guilty. I know it’ll take a miracle to stop them from taking gold, but if you could have a word with your boss and find a way to wipe those smiles off Krzyzewski and Dubya’s smug faces, that would be hugely appreciated.

Yours truly,

Robert Collins