Editorial: The virtue of sport

Every two years, members of the international community have the opportunity to showcase their athletic prowess on the grandest of scales, with the most appealing of stakes: an Olympic medal that brings international acclaim and, if fortunate enough, lucrative sponsorships.

The 2018 Winter Olympics saw almost 3,000 athletes compete in PyeongChang, South Korea, in mid-February. The world witnessed skiing and bobsledding, skating and ice hockey, jumping and curling, and the impressive biathlon.

But for all of its opportunity and appeal, the Olympics also sport a very public dark side: the party atmosphere of Olympic Village, including the apparent necessity of 110,000 free condoms (that’s more than 37 per person); the risk of sexual assault, as members of the USA’s women’s gymnastics team tragically know all too well; the glamorization of athletes’ sexuality, particularly that which does not reflect the Church’s teaching; and the tremendous pressure to succeed, pushing athletes to win at all costs.

So for Catholics, are the Olympics still worth watching? When looked at from a lens of faith the answer can be yes — as long as we bring to the Games a proper understanding of what it means to participate in sport and work to reflect this understanding in our own behavior.

For this, it makes sense to turn to Pope St. John Paul II, who had a great love of sport and who saw it as a tool to be used for both the integral development of the individual and the building of a more humane society. In his message for the opening of the 23rd Olympic Games in Los Angeles in July 1984, Pope John Paul II said, “This great event has significance not only for the world of sport as the expression of friendly athletic competition and the striving for human excellence but also for the future of the human community, which through sport gives external expression to the desire of all for universal cooperation and understanding.” (An example was this year’s unlikely collaboration between North and South Korea, which Pope Francis said offered hope for a “world in which conflicts can be peacefully resolved through dialogue and mutual respect.”)

Pope John Paul taught that sport and competition are not ends in themselves, but a means to virtue — one in which “a sense of brotherhood, generosity, honesty and respect for one’s body” helps “build a civil society where antagonism is replaced by healthy competition, where meeting is preferred to conflict, and honest challenge to spiteful opposition.”

This is the potential of the Olympics at their best, because this is the potential of humanity at its best. What if we raised the next generation of athletes with this understanding? What if we crafted a healthy understanding of sport and competition that values excellence above superiority? What if we transformed the culture from the inside out, using the universality of sport as our method? Might the dark side of the Olympics then be pierced by rays of light?

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Thankfully, this Christian witness already is present, and we can support it by identifying and following those athletes who offer a Christian witness at the Games. These include athletes like Seun Adigun, a bobsledder on the Nigerian team, who said the biggest secret to her success was her faith. Or veteran snowboarder Kelly Clark, who, even after winning a gold medal in 2002, did not find fulfillment until she found it in Christ. If we celebrate virtue in sport and use sport to lead to virtue on an individual and international level, the future of the Olympic Games looks bright indeed.

OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young