‘The glory of God is a person fully alive’ – St Irenaeus of Lyons.
As London segues into the Paralympics this month after a thrilling 30th Olympiad the world will again watch athletes at their peak of performance. The trophies will again be easy to celebrate – the culmination of some six hours a day of often pain-filled training over four years balanced with a rigorous dietary, intellectual and spiritual regime aimed at peaking in the ultimate moment. But what are the values that Olympic participation inculcates in athletes?
Sport is a great unifier bringing together talented people of discipline and imagination. Events such as the Olympics and now the Paralympics teach people to share their skills and rejoice in another’s achievements for, by its very nature, the competition renders most participants losers.
On the Olympic dais there were those who wept for joy at gaining a placing and fewer who shed tears of disappointment at missing out on gold. The Paralympics reminds us that everyone has some disability that they must overcome… who knows what disabilities are overcome in any sport, what physical addiction, emotional trauma, medical condition that are not as obvious as that which the wheelchair signifies.
The Paralympics reminds us that disabilities need not hold us back, that the possibility of triumphing over sometimes crippling conditions can be achieved.
With his dedication to sport as well as his Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II brought to Catholics a sense of the body as a unified organism that is physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual.
A key to understanding the body at peak performance is to see the athlete in communion with others in the team. John Paul II Foundation for Sport chief executive Vladimir Felzmann writes in the Tablet (July 21, 2012) of an important theme of JPII’s writing as ‘the unified corporeal and spiritual qualities of the human person’.
At its best, sport is educational, exciting, uniting, stimulating, uplifting and beautiful, Mgr Felzmann says.‘It glorifies God by lifting spirits and creating genuine communities,’ as St Irenaeus put it, by bringing a person ‘fully alive’.
‘After watching or taking part in great sport, it is difficult not to praise God and give him glory for the sublime beauty of Creation and, in particular, for our bodies and their capabilities when pushed to the limit by sport.’
Not surprisingly, Mgr Felzmann says, a growing number of sports clubs are establishing a chaplaincy. Some 190 chaplains attended the Olympics, 16 of them Catholic.
A crucial lesson of any contest is that no one can compete alone. For every athlete there is a team of trainers and advisers working together for the common good of the team, the sport, their country and, one hopes, those aspiring athletes who have no hope of becoming Olympians because they come from a country – Curaçao, Kosovo or South Sudan – without the necessary resources. Two athletes from Curaçao and one from South Sudan competed under the Independent Olympic Athletes banner.
As we watch once again these beautiful creatures being pushed to their ultimate capacity, let us ponder the community behind them and share the joy of the competition for the common good.